By Andy Reid
December 14, 2009
return to dry weather is reigniting long-smoldering South Florida water fights,
worsened by new strains on backup supplies that leave less water to go around.
A drier than usual start to the November-to-May dry season prompted renewed regional squabbling over how to divvy up water stored in Lake Okeechobee — South Florida's primary backup water supply.
West coast communities want to use more freshwater from the lake to boost the environmental health of the Caloosahatchee River and protect coastal fishing grounds.
The South Florida Water Management District contends that now is not the time and that lake water should be saved for future needs in the Caloosahatchee and elsewhere, just in case dry conditions worsen.
Sugar cane growers and other farmers south of Lake Okeechobee rely on that water for irrigation, and the lake also can be used to replenish South Florida drinking water supplies.
The seasonal strain on lake water worsened in recent years because of the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to keep the lake about a foot lower than usual year-round. That lessens the pressure on the 70-year-old earthen dike that protects lakeside communities from flooding.
Safety concerns prompted a decades-long project to reinforce the 140-mile long dike. Until the dike is strengthened or new reservoirs get built, South Florida has to learn to live with less water in its backup supply.
"We are in a triage, emergency kind of mode," district Board Member Shannon Estenoz said.
Balancing water needs has long been a difficult issue for South Florida, which gets more rainfall than Seattle but doesn't have enough storage capacity to save stormwater for times of drought.
Draining the Everglades to make way for development and agriculture resulted in a system where, to avoid flooding, billions of gallons of stormwater that could boost supplies instead get drained out to sea.
Decades ago, Lake Okeechobee was turned into a massive reservoir, with the dike holding back water that once naturally overlapped the lake's banks and flowed south to replenish the Everglades.
Now lake levels are manipulated to replenish water supplies and guard against flooding.
Last week, west coast communities were calling for the water management district to support sending more Lake Okeechobee water to boost freshwater supplies in the Caloosahatchee.
Concerns about potential damage to fishing habitat that is vital to the local economy have coastal residents "ready to riot in the streets," said Charles Dauray, who represents Southwest Florida on the appointed board that oversees the water management district.
"There's a public perception that we don't really know what we are doing," Dauray told his fellow board members. He blamed the media for fueling that perception.
Dauray called for the district to push for more lake releases to help freshwater levels in the Caloosahatchee. The Caloosahatchee and the west coast should not have to be the "sacrificial lambs," Dauray said.
But district officials maintain it's too soon to start sending Lake Okeechobee water to the Caloosahatchee.
The lake on Friday was 13.66 feet above sea level. That was about a foot lower than the historical average and a half a foot below this time last year.
"We should err on the side of holding some water right now," said George Horne, district deputy executive director of operations and maintenance.
Environmental advocates warn that the health of the Caloosahatchee should not take a back seat to holding onto lake water that may be needed to irrigate crops or meet other South Florida needs.
Divvying up South Florida's water supply requires shared adversity, not just leaving the environment to suffer, said Estenoz, who represents Broward County on the district board.
Ultimately the Army Corps of Engineers decides when to release water from Lake Okeechobee.
The decision about whether to release lake water is made week to week, driven by weather conditions and whether the lake level is in a range that allows releases.
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.
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