The news is full of stories related to the dry conditions we are facing here on the west coast related to lack of rain and tinder dry areas prone to wild fires. I thought I would talk a little bit about the County water supply where your drinking water comes from. Water is a key driver of our health, environment, and economy. Therefore, it is critical that we, as citizens of Sarasota County, continue to foster a growing ethic to conserve water during periods of water abundance and scarcity.
Water might seem of little concern in Sarasota County, with streams and lakes dotting the landscape, and the vast Gulf of Mexico lapping up to the county’s western border. But water levels are tied closely to the County’s climate, which changes drastically through the course of a year. The four-month “wet season,” which runs from June through September, brings more than half the county’s annual rainfall. That gives way to the “dry season,” though, when less than half the annual rainfall is spread out over the remaining two-thirds of the year.
Drought — also a key characteristic of the Sarasota County climate — greatly affects local and regional water supplies. Though not easily defined, drought is generally considered to be a period of less-than-normal rainfall. Droughts are less predictable but just as much a part of our local climate as thunderstorms and hurricanes. Past droughts have led to strict water-use restrictions.
What is the County doing to ensure we have an adequate water supply?
Sarasota County planners and water authorities collect and store water during the wet times to help offset the increased draw on supplies during dry seasons and droughts. This helps to secure a water supply that balances the competing demands of the environment with those of consumers, businesses, industries and agriculture. A balanced approach is essential for maintaining the area’s unique and biologically diverse rivers, lakes, and estuaries. By growing our community’s water conservation ethic, we can build our resiliency to drought, protecting ourselves and our properties.
Conserving critical water recharge areas is an important piece of the water resource puzzle. Last November, led by then Commission Chairman Alan Maio, Sarasota County formally committed to help fund the purchase and conservation of the 5,774-acre Orange Hammock Ranch area in North Port. Environmental leaders and government officials hope the unanimous vote by the County Commission will be the last step needed to negotiate a final purchase price for this coveted piece of property that is widely considered one of, if not the most, critical preservation projects in the County. Advocates frequently refer to the purchase as a “legacy project” for the commission, and leaders have emphatically agreed they support the purchase.
Thanks to some forward planning by the County water utility, we have an adequate supply of water in our Aquifer Storage Recovery System (ASR). This storage system takes water from surface water resources during the rainy season and pumps it into the aquifer for storage and use during the dry season. The ASR system is designed to store 6.3 billion gallons of water in 21 wells. In addition to the ASR wells, the County purchases water from the Peace River Water Authority (PRWA). Two reservoirs owned by the PRWA currently store over 3.5 billion gallons of water as we head into the rainy season. The reservoirs have a capacity in excess of 6 billion gallons.
So, how much water do we use?
Sarasota County has approximately 87,000 water connections, 74,000 sewer connections and 3,000 reuse connections. The water comes from 51 deep-water wells tapping into the Upper Florida aquifer and ARS System in five County well fields plus purchased water from the PRWA.
The amount of this capacity we use varies seasonally. Of the 105 million gallons per day (MGD) production capacity in the region, we use about 60% in the summer and up to 74% in the dry season. The average used capacity for the last 12 months through February 2017 has been 70.4 MGD (million gallons/day) or 67% of the average day production capacity.
March only saw 34% of average rainfall District-wide. This is 1.88 inches belowaverage. Miami-Dade County was the only area from Orlando to the Keys that received near normal rainfall. Since the start of the dry season on Nov. 1, the South Florida Water Management (SFWMD) has only seen 44% of our average rainfall. This is 6.75 inches below average. Water levels in Lake Okeechobee have dropped to 12.04 feet. Falling water levels and extremely dry conditions that are expected to linger has led SFWMD to issue a shortage alert.
If voluntary water conservation efforts prove insufficient, the SFWMD Board may consider further mandatory water use restrictions to equitably distribute the remaining water supplies across the 16 County District. Even though Sarasota County has an adequate supply, we may face restrictions if the 16 County District has a prolonged drought.
There is not an unlimited supply of water, so it is very incumbent upon all of to use the water wisely and to conserve this precious supply of water. We must also lobby our elected officials to protect as much of the water recharge land as we can, such as the Orange Hammock Ranch and other water recharge properties. We need to hold our State legislators accountable for not allocating one dime to the Florida Forever landacquisition fund this year. I encourage all of you to contact your state representative and senator to let them know you care about our land and water and you are not pleased with their vote on Florida Forever. Once this land is sold to developers, it is gone forever.
For more information on water and land conservation check out the Sarasota County Water Utility web site and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast web site.