February 9, 2017
Weather: From drenched to near-drought in a year
By Chad Gillis
What a difference a year can make.
Last year at this time Florida was preparing for a state of emergency after El Nino conditions brought summer-like rains during what is supposed to be the driest part of the year.
Now meteorologists and water managers are preparing for a possible drought.
“Six of the last seven months have seen below average rainfall, which is a stark contrast to what the dry season saw last year,” John Mitnik, the South Florida Water Management District’s top engineer, said at a district meeting Thursday. “We’ve gone the opposite direction that we were a year ago, and so far for the month of February we haven’t had any rain.”
The dry season rains of 2016 started in January, and the impacts lasted nearly the entire year.
Billions of gallons of nutrient-laden freshwater washed off the local landscape and into the Caloosahatchee River estuary and the Gulf of Mexico.
Lake Okeechobee levels rose quickly, several times faster than water could physically be diverted from the lake.
The releases, combined with local runoff, lead to algal blooms, fish kills, swimming beach closures and reported cancellations in hotel bookings and even beach-front home purchases.
Freshwater flows were so strong that water from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River watershed blasted several miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
Polluted water released on the east coast of Florida, in Stuart, flowed into the Atlantic Ocean and eventually to the coast of Georgia.
Dry conditions have also lead to increased risks of wildfires.
The Florida Forestry Service uses a drought index that ranges from 0 for super-wet conditions to 750-plus for crispy times. Lee County ranked in the 40s and 50s last summer but has now shot up to more than 600, according to forestry records.
The dry times have shifted the impacts to the Caloosahachee estuary as well. Too much water destroys the fragile marine ecosystem, but dry conditions can be as bad or even worse.
“We are in a position that we have exceeded the minimum flow and level in Fort Myers,” said Terrie Bates, the district’s water resources director. “A little bit of basin runoff will help with that. But we may see some deterioration of the tapegrass in the fresher portions of the estuaries.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is an equal chance of either above or below average rainfall between now and the beginning of April.
“As we move into March we tend to get some of those dry season rains, so we’ll see what March brings,” Mitnik said.