Worst Drought in Southern FL Since 1932

The level of Lake Okeechobee dropped below 11 feet this week with no rain in sight and parched southern Florida continues to be tinder-dry.   Continue reading for the article by Charlie Whitehead published in the Naples News.  The original article appeared HERE on Wed., May 6, 2009.

Past six months driest in southern Florida since 1932, water official says

  • The level of Lake Okeechobee dropped below 11 feet this week with no rain in sight and parched southern Florida continues to be tinder-dry.

“This is unprecedented,” said Susan Sylvester, hydrologist for the South Florida Water Management District. “We can go all the way back to 1932, and this is the driest six-month period on record.”

Estuary-saving freshwater releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee River have continued, but the latest 11-day release is scheduled to end Friday.

“We’ll be talking to the Corps of Engineers tomorrow afternoon,” Lee County water resources manager Kurt Harclerode said Wednesday. “We’ll be asking that environmental releases continue.”

Even as east coast news outlets write about “dumping water to sea” down the Caloosahatchee, Lee officials say the water crisis cannot become us-versus-them.

“Let’s not put ourselves where it’s between the haves and have-nots,” Lee Commissioner Tammy Hall said.

Hall said what west coast residents want is a comprehensive look at competing water needs and real shared adversity. When water to the Caloosahatchee was cut off for several days in March while agricultural use was unabated and east coast utilities remained on restrictions more lax than year-round rules in place here county officials, environmentalists and tourist businesses that rely on a healthy estuary were incensed.

“We don’t want people to not have drinking water and we don’t want crop prices sky-high,” Hall said. “We need to look comprehensively, and where we have to take a hit we’ll take it. We can’t be the only one taking the hit.”

Sylvester said she cannot address the Caloosahatchee releases. They are after all a Corps of Engineers decision.

“The thing I just don’t know is what’s going to happen with future releases,” she said. “The bottom line is a deficit in rainfall. It’s the reason why.”

If not enough fresh water comes down the river salty water makes its way up the river, damaging seagrass beds that are the nursery for estuary life. The river has also been close to warning standards at the county’s Olga Water Treatment Plant. Harclerode said the water is already too salty at the Fort Myers Yacht Basin, but a freshwater enclave remains upstream.

The balancing act for water managers is only going to get tougher. The lake level is now but an inch or two above the so-called Water Shortage Management Band, where stricter restrictions kick in across the district. Evapotranspiration – water evaporating out of the lake – is accelerating, Sylvester said.

“The meteorologists don’t see much of anything for a week out,” she said. “We have absolutely no certainty about future rainfall. We expect the rain to start because we’re heading into the rainy season. But when does that start?”

If the lake falls to about 101⁄2 feet, water stops flowing south and east. Forward pumps would move water in that direction for thirsty crops and residents, but only a little more than half what those areas are receiving now. The Water Management District governing board would also be asked to make recommendations to the Corps on environmental releases.

But the final decision still falls on Col. Paul Grosskruger of the Corps of Engineers.

“He’s keeping track of the conditions,” said the Corps Nanciann Regalado. “I haven’t gotten any read on him or the technical people, but we continue to monitor.”

By next week the lake is likely to enter the Water Shortage Management Band. The Water Management District governing board is slated to meet next week, too.

“If we got one more scheduled release of 11 days it might get us through to the rainy season,” Harclerode said. “We’re so close now we might make it. If they turn off the tap now and we go another month without rain that’s different.”

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