Catherine Monsees retired to a house on a lake once stocked with fish and teeming with wildlife.

That's all gone now.What she has left is a dry lake bed choked with weeds and a tarnished dream for her golden years.

"We've been cheated out of our retirement," Monsees says. "It's more than upsetting. My husband wanted to kick back and fish, but we'll never see water in that lake."

The fish are long gone from Patriot Lake. It's the same story with Crews Lake, now a 500-acre muddy crater. Likewise with Big Fish Lake, so-named for the good-size bass it once gave up. Now, the docks at Big Fish Lake wind over a river of scorched grass.

California's water woes are well-known. Not so well-publicized are the problems of Florida, a state nearly surrounded by water and built on water.

Thousands of acres of lakes and wetlands are drying up as the demand for water increases for Florida's growing population. Other lakes are polluted from pesticide runoff and factory chemicals.

The culprits are varied: too much water pumped from natural underground reservoirs, persistent drought, rapid growth and virtually no thought for water conservation.

"A lack of alternative water sources caused the crisis we're in today," says Judy Williams, a member of a coalition of lakefront property owners. "It's time to pay the piper. We're facing an environmental catastrophe. Let's not wait until we turn on the spigot and nothing comes out."

Patriot Lake, where the Monsees dreamed of a comfortable retirement, dried up over the past few years. Even the rains don't help anymore. The water disappears. It percolates down, searching for the aquifer.

From the air, the toll of heavy water usage on Florida's lakes, wetlands and swamps is vivid - especially near a Central Florida wellfield where 30 million gallons of water is pumped daily. Lake beds range from wet patches to lava-like fields of earth, parched and cracked under the blistering sun.

An estimated 17,000 acres of wetlands are damaged. Marshes are arid. Cypress trees are dead. Ducks, cranes, turtles and alligators are gone.

Florida always has had water problems - either too much or too little.

Dating to the last century, land was sold off to those who promised to drain it, dredge it, develop it and drive away the water.

"Water historically has been viewed as a problem in the state of Florida, not a resource," says Richard Hamann, a University of Florida water specialist.

Today, the pendulum has swung the other way.

Police patrol neighborhoods trying to catch and fine lawbreakers who illegally sprinkle their lawns, wasting water. And Florida's water supply is governed and protected by five powerful regional management districts, which have the power to levy taxes and impose rationing to conserve supplies.

"Cheap water is gone," says Mark Farrell, assistant executive director for the southwest water district, which regulates water use in a 16-county area on the Gulf Coast in Central Florida. "We have issued too many permits for water."