Lake Okeechobee, South Florida’s backup water supply, dropped to its lowest level since 2008 when its water level dipped Saturday below 10 feet above sea level.
By Monday the lake hit 9.89 feet – 2 feet below normal and more than 4 feet below this time last year.
The lake’s ongoing decline already triggered irrigation restrictions for yards and crops across South Florida, as well as the instillation of pumps to keep back-up water moving south.
Aside from straining South Florida supplies, declining lake levels are drying out the marshes rimming the lake. That threatens habitat vital to the survival of the endangered Everglades snail kite.
The South Florida Water Management District is moving ahead with plans to install more temporary pumps to keep lake water flowing south, despite the environmental concerns.
"It's really irresponsible, from Audubon's point of view, for there to be more (pumping) out of Lake Okeechobee," said Jane Graham of Audubon of Florida. "We are looking at multi-year harm here. This is an endangered species."
After a drier than normal October-to-May dry season, water managers are counting on the beginning of the summer rainy season to bring water supply relief.
There are no proposals so far to toughen watering restrictions, according to the district. The district’s board meets Thursday.
Landscape watering for homes and businesses across South Florida has been limited to twice a week since March. Golf courses and agriculture have been required to reduce water use 15 percent. Last month, that cutback increased to 45 percent for growers that use Lake Okeechobee water for irrigation.
In July 2007, Lake Okeechobee dropped to its all-time low of 8.82 feet and the district temporarily imposed once-a-week watering restrictions across South Florida.
When Lake Okeechobee drops below 10.5 feet, gravity cannot be relied on to consistently move water into the canals that move lake water south.
Those canals are tapped by sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations for irrigation.
The canals can also move lake water to the Everglades water conservation areas – the northern reaches of the Everglades west of Palm Beach and Broward counties.
The conservation areas provide animal habitat and hold water that can be moved east to beef up community water supplies.
The district last month agreed to install four temporary pumps along the lake’s southern rim to keep water moving south and now plans to add six more.
Audubon of Florida opposes the lake pumping, saying providing water for sugar cane and other crops shouldn’t trump protecting supplies needed for the snail kite.
The endangered birds are already abandoning nests along the receding lake, threatening to further thin a population that dropped from 3,000 to 700 during the past decade.
South Florida’s average of 12.44 inches of rain since October is about 9 inches less than normal. But the effects of the ongoing drought are worsened by manmade factors.
Providing flood control for farms and communities built on what used to be the Everglades leads to stormwater getting drained out to sea, instead of stored for future needs.
Last year, lack of storage space and safety concerns about Lake Okeechobee’s 70-year-old dike led to more than 300 billion gallons of lake water getting drained into rivers that carry it out to sea.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun