Recent rains still leave South Florida facing groundwater shortage

Even after brief relief brought by weekend rains, most South Florida water supplies remain well below normal – adding to the strain of a record-setting drought and manmade water problems.

Groundwater monitoring wells in Broward and Palm Beach counties show water levels in the lowest 10 percent compared to the usual average for this time of year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The calendar and the cycle of afternoon showers that gained frequency last weekend indicate that South Florida has moved into the summer rainy season, but the driest October to June on record still leaves the region struggling with a water supply strain.

Portions of eastern Broward and Palm Beach counties have a more than 20 inch rainfall deficit since October and it will take a rainier that usual summer to move water supplies back to normal, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

"We are still very dry,” district spokesman Randy Smith said. "The rainy season has started, it just hasn’t produced anything close to what it has on average."

Lake Okeechobee, South Florida’s primary backup water supply, was 9.63 feet above sea level on Monday, more than 2 feet below normal.

The lake has dropped too low to provide supplemental water to South Florida communities. The district is using temporary pumps to deliver about half as much lake water as normal to sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations south of the lake that rely on its water for irrigation.

The Everglades water conservation areas are also too low to supplement community supplies in southeast Florida.

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

In addition to providing animal habitat, the water conservation areas usually provide more than 300 to nearly 600 million gallons of water a day to boost groundwater supplies in southeast Florida.

But those supplemental water flows have stopped because the water conservation areas dropped below thresholds set to protect wildlife and habitat.

During past droughts, the water management district considered easing environmental protections to allow the water flows to continue, but agency officials so far are not pursuing that option.

Environmentalists have opposed taking more water from the conservation areas than existing limits allow.

More water would be available across South Florida if the water management district and Palm Beach County imposed tougher watering restrictions sooner, according to Audubon of Florida.

Landscape irrigation accounts for about half of the use of South Florida public water supply.

While Broward and Miami-Dade counties in 2010 voluntarily went to twice-a-week, year-round watering limits, Palm Beach County had been allowing three-day-per-week watering until the district imposed emergency rules in March.

"At some point I hope public officials … take a look at their rather stubborn refusal to anticipate the well predicted severity of the drought," Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said. "Much water could have stayed in the system if restrictions had been employed earlier."

Aside from using up water for irrigation, other manmade factors add to the drought’s strain on South Florida water supplies.

Flood control for farms and neighborhoods built on what used to be the Everglades leads to stormwater getting drained out to sea instead of held for times of need.

Safety concerns about Lake Okeechobee’s 70-year-old dike led to more than 300 billion gallons of water getting drained out to sea last year.

Most of South Florida remains under the twice-a-week landscape watering limits the district imposed in March.

West Palm Beach and its water customers, the town of Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, face the greatest water supply risk and have been limited to once-a-week watering.

West Palm Beach water supplies are more at risk from drought because the city relies on surface water sources, such as lakes and wetlands, while 90 percent of South Florida communities get water from underground.

West Palm Beach has emergency wells to boost its supplies and also continues to get an infusion of water from Palm Beach County. The county is providing about 20 percent of the city’s daily water.

Water levels in Palm Beach County well fields, like others across South Florida, remain below normal, said Palm Beach County Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet.

The county has scaled back the pumping from some of its wells to avoid straining its supplies, Beaudet said.

"Groundwater levels are below normal, but they are not dangerously low," Beaudet said. "We are still holding our own."

To provide more water for West Palm Beach, the water management district has asked for state environmental regulators to allow drawing water from a reservoir west of Royal Palm Beach that has had water quality issues.

The district spent more than $200 million to make a reservoir out of old rock mining pits, but has yet to build the $60 million pumps needed to move the water as intended to the Loxahatchee River. Leaving the water stagnant allows for a buildup of chlorides that limits its use to boost drinking water supplies.

The water management district has 10 temporary pumps feeding Lake Okeechobee water into drainage canals south of the lake, mostly to help agricultural irrigation. The district has held off from adding four more with the hopes that summer rains will soon bring water supply relief.

Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club oppose the continued pumping of water out of Lake Okeechobee, where lakeside marshes have already dried out threatening vital animal habitat.

Endangered Everglades snail kites rely on the lake’s marshes to find apple snails, their primary food source. With the marshes drying out, snail kites have abandoned nests. That threatens to send snail kite populations plummeting further.

Snail kite populations during the past decade declined from about 3,000 to 700.

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