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Coronavirus, stay-at-home orders spike Miami’s thirst for another commodity: tap water

When Elli Miriam Hernandez-Montero heard that her son’s preschool might be closed temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic, she bought an inflatable water slide to keep him entertained.

It has. Her son, 2 1/2, has spent hours on it nearly every day in the backyard.

“We now fill it up almost every day,” Hernandez-Montero said. “He has boundless energy, and the slide was a great alternative since we don’t have a pool.”

It’s one of the small but numerous new demands on the water supply that has caused a surge in usage that the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is watching closely. The warm dry weather of March normally sends water use up, but this time it coincides with much of the county’s 2.7 million-plus in population staying home — and washing hands more frequently, taking longer showers, doing more dishes and more laundry, bathing dogs, watering gardens and even refilling water slides.

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The Water and Sewer Department noticed an increase in the past few days, and monitoring data is trending higher, said spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer-Skold.

The county normally registers an average daily use of 300 million gallons of water per day over the year, a figure that typically climbs to around 316 million gallons in March. But by Monday, water use was already over 317 million gallons — with more than a week left in the month. Messemer-Skold said it’s possible the average could rise between 5 million gallons and 15 million gallons a day quickly as demand increases.

“People are washing their hands more often, which is great, and there are more people at home now, so it’s understandable that there will be more dishes, more showers,” she said. “But people are watering their lawns more often too, maybe because they are working from home and have more time to really look at their yards during the dry and sunny days.”

Some increase is justified, of course, because of public health measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC and the World Health Organization advise people to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds and then rinsing.

But leaving the water running for 20 seconds wastes nearly a full gallon of water in the case of older, less efficient faucets. A simple conservation move is to turn the water off while rubbing hands with soap.

Washing clothes more frequently has also been recommended as a way to remove the coronavirus from surfaces. Although evidence shows that transmission happens mainly from person to person via respiratory droplets, it can also occur if a person touches an infected surface and then touches his mouth or nose.

Current evidence suggests that the novel coronavirus may survive for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. After returning from the grocery store, for example, public health experts recommend washing all clothes.

While the department says it has more than enough water to serve customers, the county is asking residents to remember conservation rules and lawn irrigation restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will likely keep people at home for the remainder of South Florida’s dry season and run up water bills.

And the region has experienced abnormally dry weather for much of this month, meaning that “moderate drought conditions” are starting to develop over portions of the interior of South Florida, according to the National Weather Service’s drought information statement for March 26.

Residences and businesses with an odd-numbered street address can water lawns on Wednesdays and Saturdays before 10 a.m. or after 4 pm. Those with an even-numbered address can water on Thursdays and Sundays, also before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Water and Sewer is not an enforcement agency, so it can’t give people fines for watering too much, but Miami-Dade’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, or DERM, may give warnings and citations.

This story was originally published March 27, 2020 6:59 AM.

Adriana Brasileiro covers environmental news at the Miami Herald. Previously she covered climate change, business, political and general news as a correspondent for the world’s top news organizations: Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones - The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, based in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Santiago.
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