U.S. Water News Online
Residents face tough and costly water choices as supplies dwindle
MIAMI -- The Floridan aquifer often has been compared with
a sponge. It's a porous, limestone underground tank that stores
rainwater until it is needed for industry, irrigation, bathing or
But perhaps a better analogy is that of a checking account.
Deposits must be at least equal to withdrawals or, sooner or later,
something's going to bounce.
In Central Florida, where water is being withdrawn from the
aquifer faster than it is being replaced by rain, that day may not be
The St. Johns River Water Management District warns that, by 2020,
groundwater supplies won't meet projected demand and the east Central
Florida area will need an alternative source for 100 million to 200
million gallons of water a day.
Meeting that shortfall could entail drawing water from the St.
Johns River or the Atlantic Ocean -- expensive options that are
likely to substantially increase the cost of water.
"As we look to the future and the population growth and the amount
of water being used grows . . . we're not going to have the amount of
groundwater available to meet the needs unless we find ways to
conserve," said Hank Largin, a spokesperson for the water-management
"You're not going to run out of water, but what you might run out
of is cheap water."
To help push back that day of reckoning, the district is
encouraging homeowners to reduce the amount of water they use to
irrigate their yards. The campaign includes a television commercial
that shows a couple awakened during the night by giant man-weeds
guzzling water from an overzealous sprinkler.
It's a funny skit, but the issue is serious. The district
estimates that, on average, more than half of the water used by
homeowners is for irrigation. And much of that water is wasted,
running into streets and onto sidewalks or saturating the ground so
that it actually weakens grass and encourages disease, fungus and
The upshot is that, because so much of the water goes to waste,
there is plenty of room to conserve without turning lush lawns into
sandy lots studded with patches of brown.
The ad, with its catchy "it takes two" jingle, emphasizes one of
the simplest fixes -- watering lawns with no more than three-quarters
of an inch of water twice a week when it hasn't rained.
Seminole County water conservation coordinator Liz Block said more
water than that leads to shallower root systems that weakens grass by
reducing its ability to draw water and nutrients from the ground.
Current rules already limit watering to twice a week before 10 a.m.
or after 4 p.m. During the midday hours, more than 60 percent of
water used on lawns evaporates.
Block, who gave a presentation on water conservation and native
plants at the Central Florida Zoo's Wild about Florida, said there
are many things homeowners can do to save water -- and money -- while
increasing the beauty of their yards.
One of the simplest fixes, she said, is to install rain sensors on
sprinkler systems and to check automatic shutoff settings so that
sprinklers don't run when they aren't needed. She said homeowners
should also adjust sprinkler heads so that water is directed onto the
plants that need water and not onto streets and sidewalks.
Keeping the sprinklers off the street not only saves water, but
can also reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers and petroleum
products that find their way into stormwater drains and from there
into local lakes and rivers.
Situating plants according to their water requirements can also
conserve water while saving time and effort that is often wasted
trying to establish plants in areas that are unsuitable. Block said
plants that need lots of water should be placed in naturally moist
areas, while higher, drier areas should be landscaped with
Block said consumers can also save water by using barrels to catch
and store rainwater for use on dry days.
For those who are serious about conservation, replacing grass --
especially the over-thirsty St. Augustine variety -- with
drought-tolerant plants can pay off in a variety of ways.
Block's neighbor, Brian West of Casselberry, removed nearly all of
the St. Augustine grass from his front yard and replaced it with a
variety of drought-resistant plants to create a garden full of
colors, textures and aromas. Bisected by mulch paths and stepping
stones, the garden gives the house an unusual appearance.
West said the garden, which includes several plants native to
Florida, requires very little water and, as a bonus, never needs to
Since he began the project three years ago, West said he has seen
his water bill drop 20 percent and has noticed a substantial increase
in the amount of wildlife in his yard. Birds, butterflies, snakes and
even a box tortoise now call the yard home, he said.
Block, who is in the process of replacing portions of her lawn,
said installing a variety of plants -- especially Florida natives --
is important to sustaining bio-diversity.
"Right now, what most of us have is a biological desert," she
said, referring to the dominance of lawns in areas once covered by
By planting a variety of trees, shrubs and flowers, she said,
homeowners can provide food and habitat to Florida wildlife as well
as to migratory birds.
For those who don't want to remake their entire yards, the water
management district recommends limiting lawns to areas susceptible to
erosion or to those areas used by people and their pets for play.
Mulch, groundcovers, shrubs and drought-tolerant plants should be
used in other areas.
A variety of publications are available to help homeowners plan
drought-resistant yards and both the county and the University of
Florida offer free or low-cost planning assistance.
Seminole County's Watershed Action Volunteer program provides free
rain gauges by mail. Residents can also have their soil tested for
acidity and alkalinity -- important factors in plant placement -- by
the University of Florida Extension office for $1.50.
Al Ferrer, urban horticulturist for Seminole County, said the test
is one of the most important for determining which plants will thrive
in various soils.
Largin said even small changes in the way people irrigate their
yards can have a big impact on Florida's water supply.
The typical resident probably "doesn't realize they're using that
much water. Little things that won't harm your yard or plants" can go
a long way, he said. "Just a little bit different way of looking at
things can save water."
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