Emergency order prohibits lawn irrigation with potable water in Sarasota County, and burn ban put into effect

Drought conditions necessitate action, county officials say

Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 26, because of drought conditions, Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis issued an emergency order prohibiting the residential use of potable — or, drinking — water for lawn irrigation countywide.

That will remain in effect “until further notice,” the order says.

Lewis also issued a Declaration of a State of Emergency.

Both the emergency prohibition on irrigation and the State of Emergency declaration point out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “has established what is known as the Keetch-Byram Drought Index [KBDI] …” That has a scale from 0 to 800, “with 800 being desert conditions, the county documents explain. “The Florida Division of Forestry uses the KBDI to measure the risk of fire and has determined that a KBDI number above 400 indicates an undue risk of fire,” the documents note.

“The KBDI number for portions of the State of Florida, including Sarasota County,” exceeds 550, which means the risk of fire is at a high level, both documents point out.

“The drought condition poses an imminent threat of a water supply emergency in Sarasota County” because of the increased use of potable water for residential outdoor uses, the Declaration of a State of Emergency says. That “poses an immediate and present danger to the health and safety of the citizens of Sarasota County, necessitating the exercise of all reasonable preparatory, precautionary, and remedial measures,” the document adds, including the temporary ban on use of potable water for lawn irrigation, “except where such use is allowed under an exemption in the Sarasota County Code.”

Sprinklers irrigate a lawn in the county. Image from a May 26 Facebook Live video on the Sarasota County Government page

Heavy water usage on May 25 led to pressure issues for some businesses and residents, Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, explained in a May 26 Facebook Live video.

“We’re producing a lot of water,” Mylett said. “We just can’t maintain the pressure in the system …”

“We’re implementing a lot of operational changes to our system,” he added, to help increase the water pressure in the areas that have experienced problems.

If individuals will reduce their demand for water, Mylett pointed out, “Then we can assure [everyone] that people have water to take a shower,” for example.

On May 25, county staff posted this notice on the Sarasota County Government Facebook page: “Due to a need to reduce the amount of water we receive from Manatee County, some #SRQCounty water customers, particularly those north of Bee Ridge Road, may experience a reduction in water pressure. Customers will continue to receive potable water that meets all federal and state water quality requirements.”

The post added, “Manatee County has recently experienced challenges maintaining production capacity while their water plant is under construction. To assist our regional partners, Sarasota County is reducing the amount of water it receives from Manatee County while increasing the amount of water received from the Peace River Authority.

“Some customers, particularly in the northern part of our service area, may experience water pressures less than what they are accustomed to, but still within regulatory compliance. For more information, please call the Sarasota County Contact Center at 941-861-5000.”

Pleas for conservation measures

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend spurred the declaration of the State of Emergency, Mylett pointed out during the May 26 Facebook Live event. County staff is concerned about how much water will be used over the holiday period, he added.

During the Facebook Live interview posted on the Sarasota County Government page, Mylett and Fire Department Chief Michael Regnier told Emergency Services Media Relations Officer Sara Nealeigh how critical it is for residents to conserve water.

This is the reclaimed water pond at the Bee Ridge facility on May 26. It is located on Lorraine Road. Image from a May 26 Facebook Live video on the Sarasota County Government page
Reclaimed water stands in the storage pond at the Bee Ridge facility on Lorraine Road on Aug. 20, 2019. Image from a Sarasota County video

Standing next to the reclaimed water pond at the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF), Mylett noted that the pond was “considerably lower than we’ve seen it in videos in the past.”

“This time of year,” Mylett continued, a lot of people are using reclaimed water for irrigation …” Because that supply has diminished, he added, people have been turning to potable water.

“We’re asking all our residential customers to limit their outdoor use of water,” Mylett told Nealeigh. “That means irrigation; that means pressure washing; that means car washing.” Anything people can do to cut back on their water usage, he said, “will help balance our system back to a more normal state.”

The previous day, May 25, county water customers used more than 30 million gallons of water, Mylett pointed out.

“Normally,” Mylett explained, “this time of year, we distribute about 24 million gallons a day into the distribution system.”

The county’s water reclamation facilities treat only about 15 million gallons per day, he said. Therefore, staff determined that about 15 million gallons was used in the outdoor environment on May 25, much of it for irrigation.

Mike Mylett. Image from an August 2019 Sarasota County video

(In past presentations to the County Commission, Mylett has reported that the Bee Ridge WRF is permitted to treat 12 million gallons of wastewater per day. The county’s Venice Gardens facility is permitted for 3 million gallons a day, and the Central County WRF can handle a maximum of 8 million gallons per day.)

When Nealeigh asked what would lead to the end of the State of Emergency, Mylett replied, “Ideally, everyone’s going to want to see the rains come. It’s the ultimate answer.”

County staff hopes that will happen soon, he said.

The county gets its water from Manatee County and the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, Mylett explained. “Both of them have stepped up and helped us during this period of increased demand.”

Then Nealeigh asked Fire Chief Regnier about water concerns from his perspective.

“The Fire Department utilizes fire hydrants throughout the county to deal with structural fires” and other incidents, Regnier said. Enough water is available for emergencies, he added.

Each fire truck carries between 1,000 and 1,500 gallons when it goes to an emergency, Regnier pointed out. If firefighters need to respond to a structural fire, he explained, “We bring in multiple units. … The fire hydrant is augmenting the water.”

Moreover, Regnier explained, the county Fire Department is part of a regional response group. Therefore, he and his staff talk with fire chiefs at the other departments on a regular basis to make sure everyone is aware of particular issues. “We’re able to support each other.”

Given the drought conditions, Regnier continued, the Fire Department is asking everyone to use common sense in their activities in an effort to prevent outdoor fires, especially. “We’ll be looking at issuing our own burn ban,” said, within coming days.

A day later, Regnier did issue a countywide recreational burn ban, effective immediately.

Fire Chief Mike Regnier. File photo

“In accordance with Sarasota County’s open burning ordinance the mandatory burn ban will remain in effect until weather conditions change and the chance of wildfire decreases,” a county news release says.

“Recreational fires in Sarasota County are defined as any non-commercial burning of approved fuel for pleasure, religious, or ceremonial reasons,” the release explains. “This includes campfires, bonfires and any open fires not specifically permitted by Florida Forest Service.”
“The only exception to the ban is cooking fires used on outdoor grills,” Regnier said in the release. “Residents are reminded to never leave a grill unattended while cooking and ensure the grill is in a safe location. Before disposing of coals, it is important to ensure that the coals are completely cooled,” he added in the release.
“Should a wildfire erupt, nearby residents are urged to follow the directions from authorities, which may include evacuations in localized areas,” the release points out. “We ask all residents to stay vigilant during these dry conditions,” it says.