Lake Okeechobee drought

Lake Okeechobee, South Florida's primary backup water supply, remains too low to boost supplies in West Palm Beach and other communities dealing with below average rainfall. (Andy Reid)

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.