Warning of possible water shortage in S. Florida

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Officials warn of possible water shortage this winter in S. Florida

By NEIL SANTANIELLO Sun-Sentinel Web-posted: 11:13 p.m. Aug. 29, 2000

With the summer rainy season coming up short, and South Florida's backup source of water, Lake Okeechobee, stuck at low ebb, a potential water shortage is looming this winter.

( Nicholas R. Von Staden/Staff) Fearing that, the South Florida Water Management District has drafted a contingency plan that outlines 24 steps to conserve or beef up water reserves for the region.

Tactics range from such simple steps as shifting water around the landscape to building pumps on the south rim of Lake Okeechobee and seeding clouds from a plane. Additional lawn-watering restrictions are a possibility, but only for southwest Florida. At least one option could cause serious environmental harm: injecting polluted water from farm fields into Lake Okeechobee to lift it higher. "We didn't discount anything off the bat," said Dean Powell, water district deputy director of water supply, during a public meeting on the plan held Tuesday near West Palm Beach. "Some of these are no-brainers. Some of them are costly."

Just one or two tropical storms packing wallops of rain could erase the area's water deficit, said water managers. Hurricane Debby looked like a solid candidate to do that "but it just brushed us by," Powell said. "Instead we discharged water," he said, referring to water releases the water district made from canals so they would not brim over and flood as Debby advanced toward South Florida. For the past three months, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties on average have seen 5 inches less rain than they normally do, meteorologists said.

Long-range forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center do call for above-average rains from September through May, except for the heart of the dry season: January, February and March. "It's not a foregone conclusion we will be dry," said water district meteorologist Eric Swartz. The contingency plan is slated to take effect Oct. 1. The water district discharged billions of gallons of water from the 730-square-mile lake in April and May to help fish populations and marshes battered by the lake's long-swollen state. That pulled down the lake, which doubles as a reservoir. Weather that aided evaporation helped drop it, too. On Tuesday, Lake Okeechobee stood at 11.73 feet above sea level, 3 feet lower than in April. "It's been holding steady since the last week of June; it's pretty much been flat," Powell said.

The water district already is taking some action, shifting excess water from the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County into Lake Okeechobee. That could eventually add to the lake level.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 30, 2000

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