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Trying to balance drinking supply, flood control, and getting soaked

By Bob Weisman

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

Samuel Coleridge was referring to the ocean in his 1906 rhyme, but you could say the same thing about South Florida's water situation today. Drought, Water restrictions, media and governmental hype that "we are running out of water"— this is what you experience living here.

But what's the truth? How can anyone who has suffered through the downpours this summer say we don't have enough water?

It's a tricky question.The problem is, we don't save the excess water that falls almost every summer, and there is too much demand for the readily available quality water during our annual dry season and periodic droughts.

The result is an almost paradoxical quandary. South Florida is one of the most water-rich areas in the world. Most years, there is plenty of rain, and the main problem is draining the water to the ocean quickly enough to prevent flooding. But that abundance battles against an infrastructure that is still ill-equipped to capture and retain adequate amounts of rain to sustain drinking supplies.

There lies the answer to our conundrum. We need more reservoir space.

Lake Okeechobee is really one of South Florida's few reservoirs, but it can't hold as much water as it could because the dike around it is weak and because high water levels are not good for water quality. Droughts only exacerbate the problem. For the past few years, we have had less than normal rainfall and the lake has been at historically low levels. Because Florida is flat, it is difficult to build useful reservoirs, and with our high temperatures, large-area but shallow reservoirs like Lake Okeechobee lose much of their water through evaporation.

Our other major water source is in the ground. When it rains, the surface aquifer rapidly recharges. When it doesn't rain, you slowly run out of water. The problem is that there is a limit to how much water the ground can hold. When you reach that limit, the water runs out to the ocean and is wasted.

To understand the predicament we're in, and how to resolve it, it is important to understand where our water goes. Besides loss to the ocean, public and agricultural use is significant. There is a relatively new "use," however, and it is has been given priority over the others: water for environmental enhancement.

Historic Florida water policy ignored the environment. More recent policy called for equal treatment of agriculture, the public and the environment. Water policy is now centered upon improving water quality and quantity for enhancing natural areas, most notably "restoring the Everglades."

An example: Water Conservation Area #1 (a wetland reservoir better known as the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge) sits west of State Road 7, fromWellington to West Boca. New rules now dictate that several feet of water (billions of gallons) that accumulates there during the rainy season, historically used to supplement drinking water and agricultural needs in southern Palm Beach County during the dry season, must now be held within the conservation area to minimize the refuge's dry season effects.

The South Florida public hasn't heard much about these rules and decisions because they are "good for the environment" and don't attract much attention. While local government utilities have sometimes challenged or at least questioned them on the public's behalf, such positions are often viewed as politically incorrect.

But these rules and policies deserve vigorous debate when appropriate. There may be huge resulting costs and unclear, unproven or only minor benefits. The result of all this is that it is either going to cost the public more for water, or conservation will be mandated because there is going to be less available for public use. And this is true even without new growth in population, but it will surely be worse with new development, which is sure to come.

What are the alternatives to deal with this new reality? Besides reducing water usage, there are two other alternatives: treating recycled or poorer quality water from deeper in the ground, or finding a way to store rain water before it runs off into the ocean — both at greater expense.

Conservation sounds good, but typical household water use isn't very high here, except for one area: irrigation of lawns. Year-round two-day-per-week watering is the current regulatory mantra, even when there is no drought.

Utilities object to that limit during normal rainfall periods because it reduces usage and revenues and the "saved" water just runs off into the ocean. The public also gets hit by paying more for less water to make up for the shortfall in revenues.

We need to accept and live with reduced watering, but local government should not be asked to enforce these regulations when there is no public benefit other than getting people used to the conduct. There is a way to create a public benefit. How? By saving rainy-season water for dry periods.

Construction of storage, difficult as it is, has been a part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan for years, but little has happened. One of the primary ideas — storing good water deep in the ground and pumping it out when needed — has run into its own environmental questions and is expensive. A large, costly pit west of Wellington that can store huge water volumes sits unused. The South Florida Water Management District needs to prioritize storage as a current need, not something for far in the future.

The other alternative — treating poorer quality water, whether from deep in the ground or from recycling wastewater — is very viable and is being practiced by our local utilities right now, but is more expensive. If all of our water came from these sources, bills to users would be much higher.

And there is an environmental negative: Water produced is more costly because it takes much more energy to get the good quality mandated for public usage. Same is true for handling water in storage. So we will be buffeted by two opposing environmental forces — increasing our carbon footprint to save water for the environment.

So clearly, there are no easy, or cheap, solutions.

The bottom line: Government at all levels needs to cooperate to come up with common sense, well-balanced water resource plans that make sense over the long term, minimize public cost, deliver a reasonable level of service, and accomplish worthwhile environmental goals. We are not there now.

What will it take? One step could be the South Florida Water Management District designating an advocate for enhancing public water resources — to be there in the trenches arguing for the public side, but also providing realistic feedback to and coordinating with the water utilities as to what can be accomplished. Keeping these issues and funding needs in front of the district board and management, and the utilities, is necessary if sound resource-enhancing projects and resource-limiting regulations are the future.

Bob Weisman is the county administrator and the former water utilities director for Palm Beach County.

This first appeared in the Sun-Sentinel as an OpEd on 8/16/2009