December 14, 2010

South Florida could face tougher watering restrictions as dry weather continues

Declining Lake Okeechobee water levels could trigger cutbacks

By Andy Reid, Sun Sentinel,0,7406773.story

Three consecutive months of below-normal rainfall have South Florida water managers moving closer to imposing tougher watering restrictions that could spread to farms, businesses and homes if conditions worsen.

A drier-than-normal start to the winter and spring dry season has water levels declining from portions of the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee, South Florida's backup water supply.

Last week, the South Florida Water Management District board empowered Executive Director Carol Wehle to start imposing emergency watering restrictions if the lake drops another four inches before the board meets again in January.

Irrigation restrictions, phased in depending on the severity of an anticipated drought, could start by targeting agricultural operations and towns near Lake Okeechobee. They could spread to the rest of South Florida if water levels keep dropping.

The district already issued a water-shortage warning for areas just south of the lake, calling for voluntary cutbacks.

"We are in this nosedive, and the likelihood of a turnaround is small," district Board Chairman Eric Buermann said.

Lake Okeechobee on Tuesday measured 12.64 feet above sea level. That was about 2 feet below average and 1 foot below this time last year.

Before imposing watering restrictions on Big Sugar and other growers, one of the first water-use sacrifices likely would be low-level water releases from Lake Okeechobee that in recent weeks provided an infusion of freshwater needed to protect the environmental health of the Caloosahatchee River.

South Florida growers who rely on Lake Okeechobee water for irrigation have opposed those releases, saying that water eventually would be needed to beef up supplies in the dry months expected to come.

The Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida, along with West Coast community leaders, say water managers first need to impose tougher restrictions on agricultural and other users throughout South Florida before cutting off the Caloosahatchee.

"People don't have to water lawns," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club. "We are overly dependent on water and wasting water on landscaping."

When rainfall stops, water releases from Lake Okeechobee help lower salinity levels in the Caloosahatchee estuary and protect sea grasses and other habitat that provide vital fishing grounds.

Water going to the Caloosahatchee is a "paltry sum" compared to the amount of lake water used to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of South Florida farmland, according to Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah.

"Protect our coastal back bays and estuaries," Judah implored the district's board.

Agricultural representatives counter that saving Lake Okeechobee water now is a must, considering the dry months expected to come.

"We know where we are going," agricultural consultant and former district officials Tom MacVicar said about drought forecasts. "Once you are in [a drought], it's too late to do anything."

The Army Corps of Engineers decides when to release water from Lake Okeechobee, factoring in recommendations from the South Florida Water Management District.

The Army Corps on Friday started another week-long round of Lake Okeechobee releases to the Caloosahatchee, but that is expected to stop if the lake drops much lower.

The water district this year for the first time imposed year-round landscape watering restrictions to encourage conservation and boost water supplies.

The year-round rules allow three-day-per week watering for most of Southeast Florida, though Broward and Miami-Dade counties went for tougher, twice-a-week, year-round watering rules. Palm Beach County allows watering three days per week.

Even with year-round restrictions, the water management district could impose additional, temporary emergency watering restrictions during droughts.

That would start with requiring the hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee to start reducing water use 15 percent.

If dry conditions continue as forecast, those emergency restrictions could become more strict and spread to the rest of South Florida.

South Florida is expected to face a drier than normal conditions during the next few months due to the effects of La Nina atmospheric conditions.

The water management district is getting ready to install pumps that would allow Lake Okeechobee water to keep flowing south when lake levels drop below the point where gravity helps fill the drainage canals tapped by sugar cane, vegetable and other South Florida growers.