May 15, 2009

South Florida Water District: Water supply has reached critical low levels, pray for rain

WEST PALM BEACH — The bad news: South Florida's water supply has reached a critical level amid the driest November-through-May dry season on record, as vast swaths of the Everglades are now dry to the touch and Lake Okeechobee, South Florida's backup water source, has fallen below shortage level.

But there's also hope: Rains in recent days and a wet weekend forecast for South Florida may signal an earlier-than-expected arrival of the rainy season.

The South Florida Water Management District approved emergency orders to allow the city of West Palm Beach to draw from canals and other emergency sources, but is not yet considering extending any farther north the recently tightened water restrictions in South Miami-Dade and the Keys.

Sill, water managers will be watching the skies in coming weeks, as demands for water from Lake Okeechobee grow and the lake's surface has fallen so low (10.63 feet above sea level) that managers began installing emergency pumps to pull and deliver water to the region. In the last week, 0.8 inches of rain has fallen across the district, which has only seen about 5 inches altogether since November, about 68 percent less than normal.

"There is still blood in the veins, but the patient is severely dehydrated," said Susan Sylvester, director of the water district's operations center, the computerized nerve center that controls the vast network of canals, locks and pumps that move water throughout South Florida. "We are literally living day-by-day to see how we can continue to mete out the water that we have."

The dry weather means that wildfires could continue to persist for the coming months. The National Weather Service predicted that the rainy season, which on average starts May 20, will begin weeks late in June.

Although several wells in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties are showing some of the record high chloride concentrations, a sign of saltwater intrusion, wells farther north are holding steady. Should that change, one-day-a-week restrictions could soon follow.

"If the wellfields in Broward start to show any appreciable increase in salinity, we'll immediately go to one-day-a-week," said district executive director Carol Wehle.

By Paul Quinlan

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

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