May 6, 2011

Lake Okeechobee drops below 11 feet as drought persists

The lake today is 10.76 feet above sea level, more than 4 feet below lake levels this time last year. Hitting 10.5 feet would dry out most of the lake’s marshes, which is where the endangered Everglades snail kite hunts for food.

Dropping to 10.5 feet could also interrupt the gravity flows of water to drainage canals south of the lake that sugar cane growers, vegetable farmers and other agricultural operations tap for irrigation.

If the lake nears that point, the district plans to install temporary pumps that would keep lake water flowing to the canals. But the pumps don’t deliver as much as farms say they need. Also, environmentalists are concerned about the pumps further reducing water levels already threatening the snail kite.

To try to boost conservation in response to dry conditions, the district in March moved all of South Florida to twice-a-week landscape watering limits and required golf courses and agriculture south of the lake to cut back water use at least 15 percent. Those emergency restrictions could intensify if conditions worsen. "Water conservation will continue to be critical to see the region through the rest of the dry season and protect water resources for residents and the environment," said Gabe Margasak, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.

The water use cutbacks come just a few months after the Army Corps of Engineers was draining lake water out to sea because of flood control concerns. During 2010, the corps drained more than 300 billion gallons of lake water into rivers that lead to the sea. The lake releases are intended to ease the strain on the 70-year-old dike that protects lakeside communities from flooding.

Lake Okeechobee’s water once naturally replenished the Everglades, but decades of draining South Florida to make way for agriculture and development brought people and crops to land that used to naturally hold water. Now, lack of water storage space leaves South Florida dumping stormwater out to sea instead of holding onto it for times of drought.

Aside from the lake releases, the South Florida Water Management District dumps about 1.7 billion gallons of water out of its drainage canals following a typical summer rainy day.

By Andy Reid, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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