Water demand shrinks even as state, U.S. grow

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
U.S. and Florida populations are up but water use is down.

Across the country and in Florida, Americans are only using as much water as almost 45 years ago, even though the population has grown by more than 100 million people, the U.S. Geological Survey reported this week.

Environmentalists point to efficient toilets, low-flow showers and limits on lawn sprinkling, saying water conservation is the way to go.

"We have hardly scratched the surface of what can be achieved by really effective efforts toward water conservation," Audubon Florida's Charles Lee said in a comment on facebook.com/envirospear.

In Florida, increased water demand has been anticipated for years but has failed in nearly spectacular fashion to materialize. Earlier this year, a USGS report for Florida stated that freshwater use in the state decreased 22 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the state's population increased 18 percent.

In South Florida, the amount of water used is about the same as it was in 1995, even with 1.1 million more people in the region, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

As a result, per capita water use in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties also dropped about 22 percent from 1995 to 2010, according to the district. In 1995, the average person in southeast Florida used 184 gallons of water per day. That dropped to 142 gallons per day by 2010.

Conservation efforts take much of the credit, district officials said.

"Our freshwater is a limited resource," said Mark Elsner, the district's water supply administrator. "The conservation initiative is hitting. … We are definitely more efficient than we were 20 years ago."

Conservation efforts include tougher yard-watering restrictions in South Florida closer to the beaches as well as utilities charging more for excessive water use to try to encourage conservation. There have also been changes in building codes and an influx of more water-efficient faucets, dishwashers, washing machines and other fixtures and appliances.

"The more water you use, the more you are going to pay," Elsner said. "People [now] better understand the value of water and how important it is to conserve."

While water officials trumpet conservation efforts, the Great Recession and a slowdown in South Florida's building and population boom lessened some of the water supply strain.

And even if South Florida is using water more efficiently, future droughts, climate change and a growing population still threaten to strain water supplies, experts say.

While South Florida is flush with water during the summer rainy season, prolonged droughts that lower Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades can tap out the region's backup water supplies.

And the amount of ocean water already seeping in from the coast and fouling underground freshwater supplies threatens to get worse under the rising seas expected from climate change.

To prepare for future water supply strains, some South Florida utilities are building new water plants able to tap into deeper, more plentiful water sources. Also, putting that saltier water to use requires more expensive treatment before it flows out of faucets as drinking water.

Other communities are treating more of the water flushed down South Florida toilets and making that water available for sprinkler systems, as an alternative to feeding lawns with drinking water.

"It takes time … to sell this to the community," said Gio Batista, chairman of the Southeast Florida Utility Council, which represents local cities' water-utility departments.

Building reservoirs to hold onto more of the rain water now drained out to sea for flood control could be another way to bolster water supplies.

A coalition of utilities is considering building a $433 million reservoir west of Royal Palm Beach that could help boost drinking-water supplies in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

But reservoirs are costly and can still run dry during prolonged drought. South Florida needs to put even more of a focus on conservation, according to Drew Martin of the Sierra Club.

Cities and counties need to do a better job enforcing lawn-watering restrictions that often get ignored despite the reduction in water usage, Martin said.

"A lot of water is [still] being wasted." Martin said. "There's not an unlimited amount of water."

Slow-moving Everglades restoration could eventually help South Florida's drinking-water supply.

Part of that includes the proposed $1.8 billion central Everglades plan to restore more of Lake Okeechobee's water flows to the south by removing portions of levees, filling in sections of canals and increasing pumping capacity.

Getting more lake water south would help rehydrate wetlands vital for animal habitat and can also be used to bolster community drinking-water supplies.

abreid@sunsentinel.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews; kspear@tribune.com, 407-420-5062 or facebook.com/envirospear

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