The Villages has one of the highest per-capita water consumption rates in the state at 240 gallons per day, compared with a statewide average of 174.
[Photo: Gregg Matthews]
Looking over Marion County's Lake Weir from the home his grandfather built at the turn of the 20th century, former Gov. Buddy MacKay remembers the dried-up lakes, drained wetlands and sinkhole-pocked landscape that once plagued another part of Florida. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties fought a bitter war over water, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on lawsuits until officials reached a truce to lay off groundwater pumping and work together on alternative sources.
Now MacKay, who oversaw water and growth management for two terms as lieutenant governor under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, sees a 21st century conflict gearing up in his part of the state. This spring, the Southwest Florida Water Management District said The Villages could pump an extra 9 million gallons of groundwater a day at the three-county retirement community. The approval came despite the district's own reports of early signs of overpumping.
MacKay hates to think the lessons of Tampa Bay have been forgotten. He says water district managers "are doing the same thing they did to Pasco County" -- taking water from stressed natural systems and handing it to developers.
After a conflict last year in the Orlando area, the St. Johns River Water Management District led a plan, in partnership with the Southwest and South Florida water management districts, to bring Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Polk and Lake counties together to develop new supply. Now, SWFWMD and the St. Johns District, which share responsibility for the region around The Villages, are considering the same for Sumter, Marion and Lake.
Pete Hubbell, executive director at SWFWMD during the Tampa wars and now a consultant working for Marion and Lake counties, says "the jury's out" on whether the district has overpermitted. Either way, he says, the region must start planning for alternative water supplies.