Mar 7, 2008

People will save water when it drains budgets

People will save water when it drains budgets

Mike Thomas

I was eyeing a minivan. But now I'll wait for GM's plug-in hybrid.

This is a market response to rising gasoline prices.

Conserving gas was a noble notion for 30 years. But we didn't start doing it until it was in our economic self-interest.

Florida now faces a similar predicament with water. Like oil once was, water is cheap and seemingly plentiful. So we waste it, oblivious to long-term consequences. We are draining the aquifer, and in the process, sucking the water from lakes, marshes and springs.

People can't be counted on to do the right thing where conservation is concerned.

I took a 15-minute shower this morning and let the water run while shaving.

Because of my ilk, many cities and counties now are looking to the St. Johns River as the next mother lode of water. This has caught the attention of downstream cities, including Jacksonville, which are organizing to block us.

I don't blame them a bit.

The problem is not the 5 million gallons a day that Seminole County wants to take from the St. Johns now. And it won't be the millions of gallons Orange and Volusia will be asking for shortly.

The problem is that once the pipes go in, we will only want more and more and more. Eventually we will want more than the 150 million gallons a day the St. Johns River Water Management District says can be safely withdrawn.

And when that day comes, the water district will cave in to pressure and give it to us. This is the same outfit that nearly two years ago gave Volusia permission to begin draining the water out from under the manatees in Blue Spring.

Jacksonville has every right to be worried.

Look what we are doing to the aquifer now. How will this behavior change when we have twice as many people and are draining the St. Johns River?

The response from the water district is a feel-good conservation program.

Watering the yard is supposed to be limited to two days a week in the evening or early morning hours. But let me ask you this: If you have an even-numbered street address, what days are you allowed to water?

Nobody pays attention because there are no sanctions.

There also are various programs to install low-flow toilets and faucets in new construction. But homeowners often replace them. Or they flush twice and take longer showers.

Utilities have little incentive to encourage conservation because the more water they sell, the more money they make.

For all those reasons, we've barely made a dent in conservation.

There is one very simple way to do this. And that is to redo water rates and sharply penalize big users.

Utilities pay token homage to this concept. For example, I found these rates on OUC's Web site. It charges city customers 63 cents per thousand gallons for the first 3,000 gallons, $1.07 for the next 4,000 gallons, and $1.59 for the next 12,000 gallons. Big whoop. That's not going to get me rushing for a plumber to fix the leaky toilet.

How about, instead, we keep the 63 cents a gallon for the first 3,000 gallons. But then charge $5 per thousand gallons for the next 4,000 gallons and $10 per thousand gallons for the next 12,000 gallons.

Forget odd-numbered watering days. Hit people with $100 water bills and they'll rethink St. Augustine grass altogether.

Water use will plunge. And people will do the right thing -- if only for economic self-interest.

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