New irrigation restrictions kicked in Monday for sugar cane growers and other agriculture due to drought-strained Lake Okeechobee dropping too low to keep water flowing to South Florida.
Lake Okeechobee is South Florida’s primary backup water supply as well as a vital source of water for the Everglades and other wildlife habitat.
Under the new watering restrictions, agriculture that relies on Lake Okeechobee for irrigation now must cut its water use 45 percent. That’s up from the 15 percent cutbacks that had been in place since March.
The South Florida Water Management District imposed the additional watering restrictions on agriculture because lake levels last week dropped below 10.5 above sea level. That’s the point where gravity can no longer consistently move lake water into the canals that send water south.
On Monday, the lake’s elevation was 10.41 feet, about 2.8 feet below normal and 4 feet below this time last year.
The district this week may start installing temporary pumps that can keep a reduced amount of lake water moving south.
The first pumps are being considered for the West Palm Beach canal. The district may hold off on adding pumps to the other outlets south of the lake to see if the summer rainy season begins to bring relief to water supplies.
"This week is going to be our first kind of test week," said Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. "We are praying for rainfall."
The canals south of the lake that growers rely on for irrigation 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.
With Lake Okeechobee below 10.5 feet, there’s not enough back up water to provide a boost for South Florida’s ecological or community water supply needs.
Putting more limits on agriculture’s use of water is supposed to help stretch existing supplies.
The lake’s continued decline so far hasn’t triggered a change to the emergency landscape irrigation restrictions in place for South Florida homes and businesses since March.
Landscape irrigation accounts for about half of the use of the public water supply. Twice-a-week watering remains the limit for landscape irrigation.
While a drier-than-normal dry season has led to a more than 8 inch rainfall deficit, South Florida’s water supply strain is also affected by manmade problems.
Flood control for communities and farms built on what used to be the Everglades leads to stormwater during rainier times of year getting drained out to sea, instead of held for times of need.
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.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun