May 29, 2008 — -- Performing for years in the Vegas desert apparently hasn't taught diva Celine Dion much about water conservation.
Amid a worsening drought that's sucked Florida dry for the past two years, the pop legend used 6.5 million gallons of water last year at her home on Jupiter Island, Fla., according to a study done by the Palm Beach Post.
That's nearly 18,000 gallons of water a day, about 100 times more than the 170-gallons-per-day the average resident uses every day, according to the Florida-based U.S. Water Institute. Dion's annual water usage could fill more than 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
And she doesn't even live there.
A 9,800-square-foot home is under construction at the South Florida address. Dion's publicist did not return phone calls for comment.
Florida residents and national experts were appalled when Dion's high water use was reported in the Post.
"It's outrageous for an individual to be using that much water," said Wendy Graham, the director of the U.S. Water Institute. "Clearly, they either have a huge leak in their irrigation system or an outrageous landscaping regime."
For the past few years, according to Graham, Florida, along with much of the southeast United States, has experienced a water shortage due to increased population and record-low rainfall. In addition to causing a spike in water prices, the drought has created a tug of water in the northern part of Florida with neighboring Georgia, over water from Georgia's Lake Lanier.
"If we want to protect our ecosystem, we're certainly going to have to be more careful," Graham said. "Definitely, anything like 6 million gallons per year is way out there."
South Florida has a whole host of water-related issues. With miles of wetlands, including the Everglades, to protect, conserving water is more important than ever, according to Drew Martin, the Lake Worth, Fla.-based conservation chair for the Sierra Club in South Florida.
Experts estimate that at least 50 percent of Florida's water is used for landscaping. Martin says consumers need to return to using native plants, instead of water-guzzling plants that are popular.
"One of the big problems is with landscaping and the way it's done," Martin said. "This all begins with the landscaping company."
Jupiter Island city officials, however, defended Dion's water use, saying that the songstress needed lots of vegetation to maintain her privacy.
"Irrigation accounts for the bulk of any homeowner's water use. Since they have larger properties with an abundance of vegetation -- ideal for ensuring privacy, which is of special importance to well-known personalities -- it looks like higher-than-usual water usage. In reality, per acre, it's only a little above average," said Shannon Dunne, director of utilities for South Martin Regional Utilities, which provides water for Jupiter Island.
The Sierra Club's Martin blames the South Florida Management Water District, which gives utility companies permits for water use, for extreme use like Dion's, which he calls "totally unnecessary."
"People are pretty much permitted to use as much water as they want. [The district] has allowed people to over-water," Martin said. "If someone like Celine Dion planted natural plants and used 'zeroscaping,' then she probably wouldn't need to use so much water. ... The state's basically going to run out of water because we do not restrict what people used in the first place."
Water district spokesman Randy Smith says the district's current two-day-a-week water restrictions are helping to curb overall use.
"We've seen that to be a very effective program, and you can see that in the amount of water that's distributed," Smith said.
The district oversees how much water is allowed to be taken from water aquifers by utilities, but doesn't oversee individual use, like Dion's. Smith said the amount of water leaving aquifers has dropped under the restrictions, but he did not offer data to support that claim.
"People realize the finite resource that we're dealing with in water," he said. "We've had two years of a severe drought. You can physically see it in your lakes and your ponds. ... The same thing happens to the underground that happens to the surface water."
Smith also pointed out that, in the past, the restrictions have been even more severe than they are now.
"We're coming into what, historically, has been the rainy season," he said. "We're hoping that this year we'll get back to a more average rainfall."
But conservation may not be the only answer. Graham doesn't believe Florida will run out of water; instead, she thinks the state will have to learn how to manage water better, possibly through price.
"We haven't hit that point where the normal person's water bill even comes close to their cable bill or their Internet bill," she said. "Until that becomes a part of the monthly budget and a meaningful consequence [to water overuse], you won't see a lot of change unless it's part of a core belief."
But a multimillionaire, like Dion, is unlikely to be affected, Graham said.
Sanford Berg at the University of Florida Public Utilities Research Center is searching for the sweet spot that would be profitable for companies, while at the same time encourage consumers to better understand their impact on the water table.
"One of the worst things you could do would be to subsidize water, to keep the price of water artificially low, somehow," Berg said. "Most utilities have rate block structures; the unit price is greater the more you consume."
But that unit price markup is unlikely to be large enough to deter someone as wealthy as Dion, he said.
"If I were the utility, I would increase the rate for someone who is using 6 million gallons of water," Berg said. "At some point, I would make that really expensive and if she wants to continue to have a tropical paradise and is willing to pay for it, that will allow the utility to invest in water conservation measures."
"At some point, Celine will get the message -- or her accountant will."
Barbara Paulsen contributed to this report.