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Water managers trying to avoid taking more Everglades water to ease drought

Water managers so far don’t plan to dip deeper into the Everglades to help ease South Florida’s water supply woes during the lingering drought.

One of the South Florida Water Management District’s last-resort measures during past droughts was to consider lowering the Everglades water conservation areas beyond limits set to protect wildlife and habitat.

The water conservation areas are the northern reaches of the Everglades, stretching across western Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In addition to providing vital wildlife habitat, the water conservation areas supplement community water supplies to the east. That can range from providing more than 300 to nearly 600 million gallons of water a day.

Those water flows stopped this month when the water levels in the conservation areas dropped below thresholds considered a threat to the environment.

Not having that daily infusion of water from the Everglades conservation areas further strains southeast Florida community water supplies suffering from the ongoing drought.

But allowing water levels to go below the usual thresholds for the conservation areas would be a threat to wildlife, particularly the endangered Everglades snail kite and wood stork.

During past droughts, the prospect of moving more water than usually allowed out of the conservation areas drew stiff opposition from environmental groups.

District officials said Wednesday that they don’t plan to pursue temporarily lifting environmental protections to take more water from the Everglades water conservation areas.

Environmental concerns coupled with the expectation that the usually summer rain cycle will soon bring water supply relief were the reasons district officials gave for not dipping deeper into the conservation areas.

The Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, also known as Water Conservation Area 1, in western Palm Beach County is nearly one foot below its environmental “floor” – the minimum water level considered necessary to support wildlife and protected habitat.

In Broward County, Water Conservation Area 2 was more than a foot below its environmental floor.

"There are no plans at this time to lower the floor because of the proximity to the wet season starting and to avoid ecological impacts," district officials said in a statement released Wednesday.

Lake Okeechobee, South Florida’s primary backup water supply, this month dropped too low to consistently deliver water to the conservation areas.

The water management district is using temporary pumps to deliver about half the usual supply of Lake Okeechobee water that sugarcane growers and other agricultural operations south of the lake rely on for irrigation.

The Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida object to those withdrawals from the lake, where the endangered Everglades snail kite is already suffering from low water levels.

The driest October to June stretch in nearly 80 years leaves South Florida with a growing water supply strain for both the environment and human needs.

Hardest hit has been West Palm Beach, which gets its water from surface water sources such as lakes and wetlands, unlike most South Florida communities that get their water from below ground.

West Palm Beach water customers on Monday switched to once-a-week landscape watering restrictions after computer models showed the city could be three weeks away of being unable to supply the water it needs.

The town of Palm Beach and town of South Palm Beach get their water from West Palm Beach and also switched to once-a-week watering.

Most of the rest of South Florida has remained under emergency twice-a-week watering limits since March.

About half of South Florida’s public water supply ends up getting used for landscape irrigation.

Enforcement of watering rules has been fairly lax during the past year, despite worsening water supply conditions.

This week, West Palm Beach stepped up its enforcement efforts by having police officers and other city employees, in addition to the usual code enforcement offices, start issuing warnings and citations to those watering when they are not allowed.

West Palm Beach also started automated "code red" calls to its water customers, informing them of the water shortage and new watering restrictions, city spokesman Chase Scott said.

The water supply strains of South Florida’s lingering drought are worsened by decades of manmade problems.

Providing flood control for neighborhoods and farms built on wetlands leads to stormwater getting drained out to sea instead of held for times of need.

While West Palm Beach could use an infusion of water from Lake Okeechobee, lake levels have dropped too low in part because more than 300 billion gallons of lake water was drained out to sea during 2010 because of safety concerns about the lake’s dike.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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