Dumping billions of gallons of water out to sea in the midst of a lingering drought is South Florida's water-supply irony.
Drought concerns quickly can become flooding scares in the course of a summer afternoon downpour because there's not enough water storage in crowded South Florida
About 10 billion gallons of stormwater was drained into the ocean from local flood-control canals during the first two weeks of July, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
That's more than 600 million gallons a day washing away, right on the heels of the driest October-to-June on record.
With emergency landscape watering restrictions still in place, enough stormwater was drained into the ocean during the first half of July to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
South Florida's 2,000 miles of drainage canals and levees were created to protect neighborhoods and farms sitting on what used to be the Everglades from flooding. They are not so good at saving water long-term.
Adding to the problem, proposed reservoirs remain delayed, unfinished or plagued by problems, hampering South Florida's ability to hold onto more water. And there's not enough money — or in some cases, political commitment — to finish them.
"We are trying to retain as much [water] as we can," said Susan Sylvester, district director of operations controls. "In South Florida, we go from one extreme to the other. … Water has been discharged to tide. There's no place to store it."
The farther north and west rain falls, the more water storage options are available for the South Florida Water Management District.
Lake Okeechobee as well as the Everglades water conservation areas — which stretch across western Miami-Dade, Broward andPalm Beach counties — are key water storage areas that can be tapped to supplement water supplies.
But the Army Corps of Engineers during 2010, in the name of flood control, drained more than 300 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water out to sea, despite warnings that it could worsen South Florida's water supply strain during a drought.
The closer rain falls to highly-populated areas around Interstate 95, the more likely that stormwater will get drained out to sea, according to Sylvester.
With limited water storage options, environmentalists advocate tougher watering rules for homeowners and farmers alike to conserve more water. They also call for buying more western farmland to store water through Everglades restoration.
"South Florida escaped a catastrophic drought by a very thin whisker this year," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's advocacy director. He said the "political clout" sugar cane growers wield at the district too often give them preference over environmental and urban water needs.
Instead of blaming agriculture, the solution to South Florida's water supply woes is speeding up the decades-long project to strengthen Lake Okeechobee's dike so more water can be stored in the lake, said Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.
"We don't have enough water to go around when everybody needs it," Miedema. "The best place to store water is the lake."
Everglades restoration plans — which call for building reservoirs and water treatment areas — are billed as the way to boost the water supply for the environment as well as agriculture and urban populations.
But Everglades restoration remains years behind schedule. Also, the water management district has a questionable track record with the reservoirs — racking up costs with limited results saving water.
That includes $280 million for a reservoir left unfinished in southwestern Palm Beach County.
While long-term water storage fixes remain far from completion, the near daily dumping of water from summertime rains continues.
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