Drought illustrates need to rethink building rules
May 12, 2009
A three-hour workshop held last week to discuss the Tampa Bay area's critical water shortage underscored the need for this region to overhaul development practices to better protect drinking water supplies.
It also made clear that local officials and water managers were unprepared for the crisis, even though such droughts are common in Florida, as historical data presented at the summit revealed. The meeting was hosted by Tampa Bay Water, which provides most of the region's drinking water.
Problems at the regional reservoir and desalination plant, while contributing factors, should not be blamed for the crisis.
The region suffered another severe drought earlier this decade, yet until last week, local officials never saw the need for a summit, much less the adoption of a comprehensive effort to ensure the region's water demands did not outstrip supply.
Now local governments are scrambling to discourage excessive water use with drought surcharges on customers' bills and other measures.
Local elected officials and water managers should have been more proactive years ago.
The root of the current crisis is overdevelopment that has changed weather patterns, paved over critical aquifer recharge areas and used landscaping techniques that demand frequent irrigation.
At the summit state climatologist David Zierden told how massive land use changes in Florida since 1900 have drained wetlands and reduced agriculture. The developed land can't filter as much rainwater into the ground to replenish the aquifer, which once could easily meet the region's needs.
Zierden also noted development changes local rainfall patterns. Turning forests into asphalt and rooftops reduces rainfall because mist no longer rises to form rain clouds in these areas. Local officials need to consider such matters when planning for future growth.
For far too long, local officials simply assumed there will be enough water when developers came knocking. Now, having overwhelmed the region's aquifer, local officials must resort to such costly options as reservoirs and desalination plants to meet the community's needs. These sources, as we are discovering, are hardly foolproof.
Pierce Jones, an expert in low-impact development from the University of Florida, explained how government policies create water shortages by allowing projects that disrupt recharge areas and alter natural drainage while allowing subdivisions with large, water-needy yards.
"The status quo is failing," he warned. "We cannot continue as we are."
He should tell that to the Florida Legislature, whose response to the economic downturn this session was to attempt to gut development controls.
Local officials should show more wisdom. They should recognize that new development patterns, landscape requirements and building codes are necessary if Florida is to continue to meet the water needs of a growing population.
Developers, for their part, should see that minimizing water use and safeguarding natural resources are the best ways to protect the industry's future. Growth doesn't have to stop if new water practices are adopted.
This painful drought will eventually end. But there will be others. And the days of Florida leaders acting as if they had an endless supply of water to offer all comers should be gone forever.
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