Despite relief from recent rains, Lake Okeechobee water levels dropped too low for too long this year and violated state standards intended to protect the environment, according to Audubon of Florida.
Water management decisions combined with this year’s drought led to lake levels as of Monday dropping below the "Minimum Flows and Levels" standard set by Florida law.
The extended drop in lake level dried up key wildlife habitat, further threatening the endangered Everglades snail kite. The lake’s prolonged decline also cut off the lake from providing back-up drinking water when West Palm Beach supplies dipped to critical levels.
During the water supply strain, the South Florida Water Management District used temporary pumps to keep lake water flowing to sugar cane growers and other agriculture that rely on the lake for irrigation.
Water management decisions during the past year "placed the public and the environment at risk," Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper wrote to the South Florida Water Management District.
Audubon contends that stricter irrigation limits should have been imposed sooner on sugar cane growers and other agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee.
Draper on Monday called for the water management district to create a plan to help the lake recover and avoid future strains on South Florida’s primary back-up water supply.
"The restrictions placed on sugarcane irrigation were too little, too late and ultimately ineffective," Draper wrote to the district. "It is time for the District to take action to ratchet back (water) users."
In addition to providing vital wildlife habitat, Lake Okeechobee serves as South Florida’s primary backup water supply – tapped to irrigate crops and supplement regional water supplies.
South Florida endured its driest October to June on record and in June the lake dropped below 10 feet above sea level for the first time since 2008.
According to Audubon, Lake Okeechobee water levels this summer triggered a violation of state environmental standards when they stayed below 11 feet for more than 80 days in a row for the second time in a six-year period.
Environmentalists and agricultural advocates alike in recent years warned that federal and state water management decisions threatened to drop the lake too low during times of drought.
The Army Corps of Engineers, with input from the South Florida Water Management District, controls water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Safety concerns about Lake Okeechobee’s dike have the corps keeping lake levels about a foot below normal year round. During 2010, the corps released more than 300 billion gallons of lake water out to sea to ease the strain on the dike.
While South Florida was enduring a record dry season, the district released the equivalent of 22 inches of water off Lake Okeechobee for agriculture and other users south of the lake, according to Audubon.
The district in March imposed emergency watering restrictions that limited landscape watering to twice a week across South Florida and also required agriculture and golf courses to reduce water use 15 percent.
In May, growers that used lake water for irrigation were required to cut water use 45 percent.
Audubon contends that imposing tougher irrigation restrictions earlier in the drought could have prevented Lake Okeechobee from dropping to levels that violate state standards.
Lake Okeechobee’s extended decline below 11 feet dried out the marshes rimming the lake that endangered snail kites rely on for feeding and nesting. As water levels declined this year, snail kites started abandoning their nests.
Before the drought, snail kites populations during the past decade had already dropped from about 3,000 to 700.
"Largely as a result of water management practices, this endangered species no longer has viable populations through its historic range in the Greater Everglades," Draper wrote to district officials.
The South Florida Water Management District officials on Monday issued a statement saying they "appreciate Audubon’s input" on Lake Okeechobee water supply decisions.
"These are complex issues that require thoughtful discussion with federal water managers and all stakeholders with an interest in the management of Lake Okeechobee," the district statement said.
Lake Okeechobee on Monday measured 10.13 feet, continuing to rise this month amid steady rains.
Despite increased rain, the lake still remains more than 3 feet below normal. District officials warn that it will take above-normal rainfall this summer to avoid going into the next winter-to-spring dry season at water shortage levels.
Building more stormwater storage facilities and reducing the use of Lake Okeechobee for water supply needs are among the ways to help stretch South Florida water supplies.