What water crisis? Florida bottler wants to expand

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To hear state officials tell it, we have a water crisis — so you must make sacrifices.

We're talking about less lawn-watering, more efficient appliances and a generally more conscientious lifestyle.

"Install low-flow showerheads," instructs the St. Johns River Water Management District.

I'm happy to do my part. But it gets a little confusing when the same water district telling me to save 3,000 gallons a year from better shower heads a year seems poised to let an out-of-state bottled-water company double its consumption rate to more than 300 million gallons a year.

That's more water than SeaWorld uses.

Heck, it would take my family 330 years to save as much through shower heads as Niagara Bottling wants to suck from beneath Lake County on any given day.

And I'm not sure we'll be in this house that long.

This is Florida's water crisis: water must be conserved … unless you wanna bottle it and sell it elsewhere.

Seriously, the St. Johns District actually put out a statement downplaying the consumption rate of bottled-water companies in the district, saying the combined industry uses only 2 million gallons a day — "less than 3/10 of 1 percent of the water used in the District on a daily basis."

In other words: Their 2 million gallons a day is negligible. But the 300 gallons the average family uses is a big deal.

The mixed message undermines a real problem. Specifically, the studies that show there isn't enough water in the Floridan Aquifer to support our predicted growth rates.

Niagara points out many companies use more water than they do. And they're right. We're talking golf courses, sand mines, tree farms, beer distributors and soda-makers.

Niagara cites the bigger users as proof that they should get their permit. I see the bigger users as proof that the whole system is messed up.

If water is truly scarce — and everyone from Gov. Rick Scott to environmentalists agree it is — we're going to have to do things differently.

I'm willing to do my part. But, if this is a shared, community resource, we're going to have to start making shared decisions about how we want it used.

I can't argue with drinking it. But I can argue against bottling it up and shipping it elsewhere.

And I can question how other massive consumers are using it.

Really, when it comes to conservation, there are only two ways to reduce consumption — rewarding good behavior and punishing bad.

We already do that for you — and most citizens who get their water through utilities. You pay higher rates for greater usage.

But we don't do that for businesses and utilities that get the water themselves. They get it for free. As much as they want as long as they get a permit. That seems like a flawed way to promote conservation.

Calls for conservation are often countered with the necessity of economic development.

Niagara, for instance, promised 200 new jobs when it first set up shop in 2008. Plus, the company penned a Sentinel guest column that said industry data suggested "each one of these 200 direct jobs will create an additional four jobs in the local community."

Flash forward to today: There aren't 200 jobs. Niagara says it has 120.

So they not only stiffed us 80 jobs, they shorted us another 320 jobs, according to their own magic multiplier.

Really, though, I agree with Niagara that the issue is bigger than this one company.

We have a dwindling resource we need to protect.

We just need to be consistent — and deliver the same conservation message, whether it's to companies that use water for profit or Average Joes who use it to bathe.

smaxwell@tribune.com

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