The Heat Is Online

South Florida Suffers Worst Drought in Decades

Floridians slow to heed drought warnings

The Boston Globe, Feb. 17, 2001

BOCA RATON, Fla. - It has been almost 200 days since John Barry has heard thunder rumble in the distance and raindrops pelt his Spanish-style rooftop before soaking the earth beneath his rose bushes.

So four times a week, the human resources consultant stands outside his home in southern Palm Beach County and waters his roses by hand.

''They need water,'' he said one evening, ignoring a ban on excessive water use throughout South Florida. ''It doesn't rain, so where are they going to get their water from?''

People like Barry show how tough a job local officials have as they try to alleviate the region's worst water shortage in decades. Last month, managers tightened water use for the second time since December, imposing the toughest restrictions on residents since 1991 and promising strict enforcement in 16 counties.

So far this year, the average rainfall in south and central Florida is about 15 inches below the normal total of 50 to 60 inches, and the area has yet to hit its driest time of the year.

Because South Florida is flat, it has comparatively few places to store water and depends heavily on rainfall for its supply. The backup supply for both residents and agriculture comes from the already low Lake Okeechobee.

''It's totally dry out there and we're still months away from rainy season'' in June, said Bruce Adams, a district water conservation officer for South Florida Water Management. ''In order to compensate for the lack of rain, we need residents to cooperate and not use excessive amounts of water.''

The problem does not begin and end in South Florida, officials say, but affects the entire state.

Officials are concerned that the combination of low rainfall and dry vegetation will increase the potential for uncontrolled wildfires, which have been popping up across the state since 1998. The so-called drought index, which measures fire danger and soil moisture, is at a level normally not seen until May.

The drought is also reducing this year's orange production and the size of oranges. And the drought could affect the long-term health of the industry, because it takes a small tree several years to mature to a steady production level.

Florida residents, meanwhile, have been facing an escalating response from local agencies.

Two months ago, water managers implemented phase one of the restrictions, but said residents did not respond to the warnings and continued to excessively water their lawns and wash their cars.

Then police and local government officials got involved and took to the streets to hand out warnings, one step before imposing fines.

When the warning still was not taken seriously, the water district began buying commercials on television and radio, posting community fliers, and having neighborhood meetings, urging residents to be ''water smart'' and try to save every drop.

Now in phase two, the category labeled ''severe,'' officials have begun to squeeze the tap even tighter and have encouraged police and code enforcement officers to cite violators, who face a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

So far, said Adams, the water conservation official, police have issued 2,892 warnings and 573 tickets in 10 counties. He predicts the totals will double by the end of this month.

In phase two restrictions, lawn watering and car washing are limited to two days per week: Wednesdays and Saturdays from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for addresses that end in an odd number; Thursdays and Sundays, 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., for even-number addresses. Commercial establishments, like car washes, that recycle water do not have to follow the ordinances.

Since the tighter restrictions went into effect, residents from Key West to West Palm Beach and Orlando have fallen short of the Water Management District's goal of cutting consumption by 30 percent. Water managers said residents have reduced their water usage less than 15 percent so far.

But officials say that even with the threat of fines, it may be difficult for many to understand why they need to conserve water in a state that is surrounded by it and is referred to by some as the ''swamp state.''

''There's a lack of understanding about water,'' said Ron Jones, the director of the Southeast Environmental Research Center at Florida International University. ''Turn on the faucet and there it is. But people have no idea where water comes from. It's just always been there.''

Jones said his next-door neighbors, for example, run their sprinklers every day. It is this kind of waste that he said will force communities to raise water bills and move to the third of four phases of restrictions, and watering time could be eliminated.

''People aren't going to take this seriously until it really begins to cut into their lives,'' Jones said. ''Once it gets to be really expensive and they see their water being delivered in by trucks, that's when they'll start changing. But old habits die hard.''

That's especially true in a region where residents are still living with flood damage from an October storm that dropped 20 inches of rain over two days. And in some areas, where the grass is still green and the impatiens are still blooming, the restrictions go unheeded.

''I didn't realize it was so bad,'' said Sam Gessualdi, who spends his winters here away from the cold air and the barren maple trees up north. ''Everything looks great.''

''South Florida never feels dry to me,'' said Dolly Hernandez, a Miami-Dade resident who has begun to follow the restrictions. ''It seems like it's always raining here.''

But water managers say a lot more is needed.

''We would need a bunch of rainstorms to come in and fix the damage,'' said Adams. ''And there isn't much good news coming this way.''

This story ran on page A02 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2001.