Cruise ships fill up on South Florida water without restriction
Peak cruise season coincides with South Florida's dry season
The threat of water shortages leaves South Florida homes, businesses and farms facing lingering water-use cutbacks, but cruise ships get to take as much as they want.
These floating cities that dock at ports in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties take more than 300 million gallons of South Florida's fresh water a year, enough to supply the drinking water for a town the size of Dania Beach for a year.
These are the same cruise ships that have tried to leverage pilot fees down by proposing legislation to allow cheap, inexperienced pilots to dock giant liners
The peak cruise season falls during South Florida's winter-to-spring dry season, when water supplies are most vulnerable. Yet unlike homes and businesses, the ships aren't subject to year-round water-use cutbacks or the tougher emergency restrictions imposed during droughts.
While homes and businesses are metered and charged for their water use, the largest cruise lines at Broward's Port Everglades pay flat fees for their water, not based on the actual volume they use.
"It's a huge issue," said Marcie Keever, who handles oceans and vessels issues for the Friends of the Earth, an international environmental advocacy group with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. "They are taking fresh water on at ports [when] communities are going through significant droughts and facing watering restrictions."
Cruise lines counter that are taking steps to conserve, such as using more water-efficient washing machines, shower heads and toilets. Also, larger cruise ships supplement their freshwater supply by using desalination to turn ocean water into drinking water.
The beneficial economic ripple effects that the cruise industry brings are felt more than the South Florida drinking water that leaves with the ships, according to port officials.
During 2010, cruise ships made about 1,000 ports of call at Port Everglades with nearly 4 million passengers.
"It's a small city," Port Everglades Deputy Director Glenn Wiltshire said about the biggest ships that carry nearly 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members. "They are shopping in our local hotels. They are spending money. (That's) the economic benefit that those ships and passengers bring to the region."
Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise line, tries to reduce water use by: retrofitting older ships with more efficient laundry machines and dishwashers; installing low-flow shower heads and vacuum-pressure toilets; using seawater in swimming pools; and encouraging passengers to reuse towels.
"We monitor the amount of water consumed on each ship and each vessel works toward a company goal of reducing water usage," Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said.
But because the South Florida Water Management District doesn't require South Florida's ports or the cruise ships that operate there to get individual water use permits – like a farm or golf course must have – the district has limited ability to impose water-use cutbacks there.
Golf courses and other large commercial water users do get more flexibility in water use than what's allowed for landscaping at homes and other businesses. But golf courses still have a maximum water use limit set by the South Florida Water Management District and cruise ships do not.