Exclusive: Cape leaders waited months to tighten watering rules

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This City of Cape Coral graphic shows the city’s emergency one-day-a-week lawn-watering schedule that begins Friday. It’s based on the last number in addresses, as listed in the column on the left.

CAPE CORAL, Fla. An unprecedented water conservation measure takes effect Friday, but the city’s utilities director wanted it to happen months ago.

Jeff Pearson first recommended on Dec. 19 that City Manager John Szerlag should cut the number of days residents are allowed to water their lawns from two down to one, documents show. He did so again Feb. 3.

But imposing the restriction in December would have been “way too early,” city spokeswoman Connie Barron said.

“Back in December, we really didn’t want to pull the trigger on one-day watering as well because we don’t know, we can’t predict what the weather is going to do over the next four to five months,” she said.

The city, and most of Southwest Florida, is in the midst of severe drought that was declared March 30. Until that date, the drought had been classified as “moderate” since the start of the year.

City officials began asking residents to cut back on watering their lawns in March. That appeared to have a significant effect.

Residents pulled an average of 21 million gallons of water from canals per day in December. Now, they’re only pulling an average of 13.5 million gallons per day.

“So the amount of usage has definitely decreased, so there’s been some response to that, but we just haven’t had any rain,” Barron said.

Only isolated rain is expected over the next seven days, as has been the case for much of the dry season.

About half the water Cape Coral residents use to irrigate their lawns comes from the city’s freshwater canals. But with no rain, water levels are dropping dangerously low. They’re approaching the all-time low of 610 gallons set in 2007.

If it drops to 500 gallons, pumps stop, affecting the water pressure in more than 800 fire hydrants across the city. That could happen within the next 10 to 15 days.

“We have to be able to supply water to those hydrants whenever the fire department gets a call out to a residence,” Barron said.

The problem isn’t isolated to Cape Coral. The South Florida Water Management District, which covers most of Southwest Florida, last week issued a water shortage warning that asked residents to conserve water, just as Cape Coral did before turning its request into a demand.

It’s a demand that applies only to automatic sprinklers. The first violation elicits a warning. Next comes a $100 fine, then a $200 fine. The last straw is a $400 fine and the disconnection of the watering system.

Hand-watering is still allowed at any time. And a solution may not be far off.

The city is in the midst of a permitting process to bring in water from a mining pit in Charlotte County. That water could be accessible by month’s end.

The shortage isn’t so dire when it comes to drinking water, which comes from a different source. The city estimates it has enough drinking water to last the next 15 to 20 years.

WINK News reporter Kim Powell gathered reaction from residents at Monday’s City Council meeting:

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