Polk County officials are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years to develop so-called alternative water sources. These projects involve tapping the upper nether regions of the Floridan aquifer in rural areas of the county and building an extensive pipeline system to deliver the treated water to faraway cities.
The rationale for this is to continue development as usual because the traditional historic freshwater aquifer has been overexploited and would become salty instead of fresh if the overpumping continued unabated.
One issue that utility officials have been struggling with to avoid this type of expenditure is to persuade customers to use less water, which relates to how residential subdivisions are developed .
Water conservation is a concept that has been slow to catch on in many parts of Florida, where residents are used to being able to water their lawns as much and as often as they felt was necessary to maintain this green monoculture.
Ironically, newer subdivisions use more water than older ones because most of the new homes come equipped with automated irrigation systems.
This is important because lawn irrigation makes up the largest portion of residential water use and the rules for when and how often people can irrigate don’t appear to be aggressively enforced. Last month was Water Irrigation Month in Florida and elsewhere, but driving through one town along the Lake Wales Ridge the other day the sprinklers were running at midday in a section of the main street medians.
The Lake Wales Ridge is an apt place to talk about the folly of lawn irrigation because before heavy development and agriculture arrived, the landscape didn’t resemble anything lush.
This ridge that runs from northern Lake County to southern Highlands County is really a series of prehistoric desert islands.
The late Henry Swanson, who served as agriculture extension agent in Orange County decades ago, aptly pointed out that every other place at about this latitude on the planet is a desert. He warned about the coming water shortages that have become more obvious to more people in recent times and are what spurred the water projects mentioned above.
The thing that makes Florida less desert-like is when the prehistoric seas receded a peninsula that’s often able to benefit from rainfall from crossing sea breezes, but there’s speculation how long that will last as climate change has more of an effect on regional weather patterns.
In other parts of the United States that don’t have the benefit of sea breezes are wall-to-wall deserts, officials have taken a radical approach to save water.
In Nevada, for instance, legislators voted last year to mandate that residential lawns had to go because they could only be maintained with irrigation, which they ruled wastes declining water supplies for merely esthetic purposes.
Officials in southern California are also reportedly trying to crack down on unnecessary lawn irrigation too.
If this were proposed in Florida, it would result in a lot of pushback from the lawn industry—sod has become by some accounts Florida’s largest agricultural crop—and the lawn-care industry that previously resisted the idea that fertilizer use during the rainy season should somehow be limited because the stormwater runoff from these hyper-enriched lawns contributed to the pollution of lakes and streams and the estuaries where the water ultimately reaches.
Homeowners who have been persuaded that lush lawns are the best thing in the world would rebel, too because they don’t know any better.
Nevertheless as the pressure on water supplies increases, it may be worth considering whether current practices are a good idea.
Keep in mind that the current water plans under consideration are only designed to deal with the predicted shortages that will occur over the next couple of decades.
The planet is expected to exist much longer than that.
Maybe it’s time to start thinking much farther out.