OKEECHOBEE – While they agreed water conservation is important, Okeechobee County Commissioners are not ready to fine homeowners who water their lawns on the wrong day or let the sprinklers water the sidewalk and street.
At the Feb. 11 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Libby Pigman of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), asked the county to pass an ordinance to enforce the year-round water conservation measures the SFWMD put in place in 2010.
The average each person in South Florida consumes 179 gallons of water per day, with half of that going to lawn irrigation, she said. “Simple changes can help us become more efficient water users."
Back in 2010, the district adopted a year-round rule for lawn watering, she explained. Landscape irrigation is not allowed between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (when water is more likely to evaporate) and limited to two days a week. Those whose addresses end in 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 are allowed to water on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Those with addresses ending in 0, 2, 4, 6 or 8 are allowed to water on Thursdays and Sundays.
At the time this rule was adopted, SFWMD asked local counties to also adopt local ordinances to support the year-round rule, said Pigman.
She said the purpose of the rule is to “increase water use efficiency and prevent and curtail wasteful water use practices.”
“We’ve all seen sprinklers landing on the street or on sidewalks or on the pavement,” she said.
“The ordinance we would like you to adopt will apply to landscape irrigation only,” Pigman continued. “There is a separate procedure for agricultural use and golf courses. We recognize they are different.”
She said the rules apply to water from wells and canals as well as water from a utility. The rules do not apply to the use of reclaimed water, she added.
Pigman said a model ordinance has been provided to the county and district staff is available to help with any questions and with outreach to the community.
She said when it comes to funding requests, SFWMD may look more favorably on counties that have enacted the requested ordinance.
“With an ordinance comes enforcement, with enforcement comes punishment,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “I think a lot of people in Okeechobee County are more inclined to limited government intrusion in our lives.
“Although I believe in not wasting our natural resources, and I think it is silly for your sprinklers to water the sidewalk and the road and it’s silly to run your sprinklers in the heat of the day ... I am not sure I am ready to fine people for doing silly stuff,” he explained.
“When we go to water restrictions, it is frustrating when billions of gallons of water are being dumped out of the lake,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.
“If there is truly a water emergency, I am on board 100%,” he said.
“This is water conservation for your community. Enforcement is your prerogative,” Pigman said. While most people are willing to conserve water, “you are always going to have the bad apple. This would give you an enforcement mechanism.”
Commissioner David Hazellief agreed water conservation is important. He remembered a meeting 40 years ago when Lottie Raulerson was screaming at the top of her lungs, “There is no more water being made!”
Culpepper questioned the impact fines would have. “When someone violates an ordinance, because they homestead a property, our hands are tied,” he said. “Fines just keep piling up." After a large amount of fines against a property accrue, the property owner goes before the magistrate to get the fines reduced, he continued. He said the county also has limited staff and it is hard to enforce rules already in place.
“We have to hold people accountable. We can’t just let people do what they want,” said Pigman.
Commission Chair Terry Burroughs said passing another ordinance will not make a difference if they don’t have the staff to enforce it. “I had a lady call the other day and say she got COVID-19 because we would not put in a mandatory mask ordinance,” he added.
“I think the code enforcement people are trying to do the best they can over 750 square miles,” he said.
“When there is a water emergency, when there is a drought situation, I am all for an ordinance to cover that,” said Goodbread. He suggested SFWMD could do more to increase education or awareness. He said he hates to see water wasted.
Commissioner Kelly Owens said she would like to see more information on the proposed ordinance. She said SFWMD is a funding source for some projects in the county. “I am not ready to put any additional funding sources in jeopardy,” she said.