Pumps will be added to keep drought-strained Lake Okeechobee’s water flowing south, despite environmental objections about draining wildlife habitat.
While that will help irrigate sugar cane fields and potentially boost community water supplies, siphoning the lake threatens wildlife that rely on its water to survive.
Of particular concern is the endangered Everglades snail kite which has already seen 80 percent of its lake habitat dry-up due to lake levels dropping.
Water supply needs for agriculture and communities that get a boost from the lake outweighed the environmental objections, the South Florida Water Management District decided this week.
The district is “closely monitoring water levels and is urging residents and businesses to conserve water and follow landscape irrigation restrictions to stretch available supplies,” the agency said in a statement released Wednesday.
Installing the four temporary pumps at the southern end of the lake comes despite Audubon of Florida warning in a May 23 letter to district officials that pumping threatens to “harmfully impact the success of future Snail Kite nesting for years to come.”
The water supply benefits aren’t worth the environmental damage, according to Audubon.
“Installation and use of temporary forward pumps poses significant risk to the designated critical habitat and nesting success of the Snail Kite. These pumps, if used as intended, will draw down the lake significantly, drying out areas around active nests,” Audubon Executive Director Eric Draper wrote in the letter to the district.
Canals south of the lake deliver water that sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations use for irrigation.
The canals can also deliver lake water to the Everglades water conservation areas, west of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Those conservation areas are the northern reaches of the Everglades. In addition to providing animal habitat, the conservation areas hold water used to supplement community water supplies in southeast Florida.
Lake Okeechobee on Thursday was 10.28 feet above sea level. That’s almost 3 feet below normal.
At 10.5 feet, gravity can no longer consistently move water in the canals that send lake water south.
Also at 10.5 feet, more than 80 percent of the foraging habitat for the snail kite dries out.
The health of the snail kite is considered a barometer for the overall health of the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee’s water level is important to the kites because the marshes rimming the lake are home to the apple snail – the primary food source for the finicky snail kites.
Snail kite populations during the past decade have dropped from 3,000 to about 700.
In addition to adding the pumps, growers that use lake water for irrigation have been required to cut back water use by 45 percent.
Landscape watering for homes and businesses across South Florida has been limited to twice a week since March 26.
The ongoing drought has resulted in a more than 8-inch rainfall deficit since October, but manmade problems also are to blame for South Florida’s water supply strain.
During rainier times of year, flood control for communities and farms built on former wetlands leads to stormwater getting drained out to sea due to lack of storage space.
During 2010 more than 300 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water was drained out to sea to ease the strain on the lake’s 70-year-old dike.