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Drought and related water restrictions expand in Southwest Florida

Lawn watering uses the most water in Southwest Florida, thus ensuring that sprinklers are working correctly and not running during banned hours is especially important during drought conditions
South Florida Water Management District
/
WGCU
Lawn watering uses the most water in Southwest Florida, thus ensuring that sprinklers are working correctly and not running during banned hours is especially important during drought conditions

Residents of Sanibel, and north Cape Coral, are being reminded about the drought unfolding in coastal Southwest Florida and to stick to the water restrictions.

The City of Sanibel on Thursday sent reminders to residents to pay attention to the drought unfolding in coastal Southwest Florida and to stick to the water restrictions already imposed on the island’s 5,300 water users.

The Island Water Association, a non-profit water utility serving customers on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, says while highly seasonal, average water use on both islands is 2,200 gallons per minute, demand is growing.

A third of the water used on both islands is for domestic use such as sanitation, personal hygiene, drinking, and cooking. More than 65% of the water of both islands is used for lawn watering, a ratio somewhat higher than other places in Lee and Collier counties.

The Island Water Association, Inc.
/
WGCU

Letting the grass turn brown by backing off on watering the lawn is exactly where managers for the South Florida Water Management District say the biggest opportunities lie for saving water during this drier-than-normal dry season.

“It’s imperative that water be conserved. And one of the biggest ways to do that is by curtailing the landscape irrigation, which really accounts for about half of the water that we use every day,” said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the water management agency. “The Southwest Florida coast has had a very significant rainfall deficit throughout the wet season, many inches short. And demand has been pretty high as far as usage.”

This week the agency put mandatory watering restrictions in place in the greater North Cape Coral area. In those areas, landscape irrigation will be limited to one day a week if the water comes from private wells.

Water managers have been imploring residents of Lee and Collier counties outside of north Cape Coral area for more than a week to conserve water inside the home and limit lawn watering outside.

If there is no significant rain, and not enough conservation, typically such requests turn into mandates.

What is happening below the surface of Florida?

An aquifer is a body of rock or sediment that holds groundwater below the ground. Think of an aquifer like a giant sponge in a bucket. Open a faucet like rain, and the bucket fills as does the layers of ground hundreds of feet below the surface. As long as the faucet is on the bucket remains filled with water and the sponge will be soaking wet.

But sink dozens and dozens of well pumps into the sponge, both by private homeowners and by cities and towns for their residents, and turn the faucet of rain almost off, and eventually those wells are going to pump the sponge dry.

Gravity pulls the remaining water lower. Wells then need to be dug deeper to access the water. The cycle repeats until the bottom of the bucket is reached.

That would be bad. And that is what South Florida’s water managers are trying to avoid with the voluntary and mandatory water restrictions, which will stay in place until enough rain falls and has time to percolate down to the aquifers in the ground.

The SFWMD issued its water shortage warning for Southwest Florida’s coastal regions because rainfall is 13 inches lower than normal for the year. And Florida’s dry season, which runs from November to May, has just begun.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows the dearth of rainfall in Manatee and Sarasota counties is of historic proportions. Rainfall in Bradenton, Sarasota, and Venice so far this year has totaled 22 inches, which is just over 50 percent less than in a normal year.

“It’s imperative that water be conserved. And one of the biggest ways to do that is by curtailing the landscape irrigation, which really accounts for about half of the water that we use every day.”
Randy Smith

The National Weather Service says the region is on-track to have its driest year on record.

Fort Myers is short about 9 inches of rain than in an average year when about 53 inches falls.

“There were a few areas in Southwest Florida and the interior that saw decent rainfall over an inch during the last week ending November 14th,” NWS meteorologists wrote in a summary of recent conditions. “But generally, less than a tenth of an inch of rain fell in most locations. Rivers across the region didn’t change much, but with the recent rainfall have improved some.”

The Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer, located approximately 125 feet underground in north Cape Coral, provides water to many private wells in the area affected.

For residents within the designated area in Cape Coral, the irrigation requirements are:

Addresses that end in 0 can irrigate on Mondays,12-4 a.m.

Addresses that end in 1 can irrigate on Fridays, 4-8 a.m.

Addresses that end in 2 can irrigate on Thursdays, 12-4 a.m.

Addresses that end in 3 can irrigate on Wednesdays, 12-4 a.m.

Addresses that end in 4 can irrigate on Sundays, 12-4 a.m.

Addresses that end in 5 can irrigate on Saturdays, 12-4 a.m.

Addresses that end in 6 can irrigate on Thursdays, 4-8 a.m.

Addresses that end in 7 can irrigate on Wednesdays, 4-8 a.m.

Addresses that end in 8 can irrigate on Sundays, 4-8 a.m.

Addresses that end in 9 can irrigate on Saturdays, 4-8 a.m.

For example: if your address is 123 Main Street, your address ends in 3 and can irrigate on Wednesdays between the hours of 12 a.m. (midnight) to 4 a.m.

For residents within the designated area in unincorporated Lee County, the irrigation requirements are:

Even-numbered addresses, installations with irrigation systems that irrigate both even and odd-numbered addresses within the same zones, such as multi-family units and homeowners’ associations, and rights-of-way or other locations with no address, can irrigate only on Sundays.

Odd-numbered addresses can irrigate only on Saturdays.

Landscape irrigation users located in unincorporated portions of northeastern Cape Coral, are prohibited from irrigating between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on their assigned day.

Low-volume watering, such as drip irrigation and microjets, must be reduced.

Hand watering of existing lawns and plants with nozzle with an auto-off switch is allowed anytime, but for no longer than 10 minutes.

To save water both inside and outside homes:

  • Restrictions on watering days need to be followed.
  • During the cooler winter months, lawns do not need to be irrigated as frequently as summer months.
  • Check irrigation timers to ensure settings are correct and rain sensors are working properly.
  • Repair broken pipes and damaged sprinkler heads.
  • Fix leaks. Finding and fixing water leaks conserves water, saves money, and protects your home from damage.
  • Avoid hosing off or cleaning streets, sidewalks, driveways, or other areas with water.
  • Reduce shower times, minimize loads of laundry, and only run dishwashers when full.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Tom Bayles