Water levels reach crisis as Florida's drought drags on

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Saturday, April 21, 2001

Story last updated at 09:10 a.m. on Saturday, April 21, 2001 Water levels reach crisis as Florida's drought drags on

By AMANDA RIDDLE Associated Press Writer

MIAMI - For three straight years, the Florida formula has been the same: Too many people, not enough raindrops.

Everglades marshes have turned into mud flats. Overpumped wells in the Tampa Bay area have sucked nearby lakes and wetlands dry. So much salt has intruded on depleted wellfields in parts of southwest Florida that notices have been sent out warning people on low-sodium diets not to drink the water.

Already it's being called a crisis. It could have the makings of a disaster.

"It's going to get worse," warned Gov. Jeb Bush, who has taped a series of ads urging Floridians to conserve water. "It's not going to get better for the next four or five months."

That pessimism is shared by orange farmers who question whether there will be enough water to get out their next crop, and homeowners on the edge of tinder-dry forests who wonder whether wildfires will allow them to get out at all.

With rainfall 21 inches below normal over the past three years, Florida is by far the nation's driest state, with all but its Panhandle in extreme drought. And there are few signs the situation will turn around anytime soon.

Even mighty Lake Okeechobee, South Florida's backup water supply, is 4 feet below normal and there may not be enough water in the next few months for normal releases into the underground aquifer to prevent saltwater intrusion.

"It's almost like jumping out of a plane without a backup parachute," said Tommy Strowd, operations director for the South Florida Water Management District.

If the drought persists through the traditional summer rainy season, a state emergency plan calls for leasing portable reverse-osmosis plants and shipping water to parched cities and towns in tankers.

The Salvation Army is storing 70,000 gallons of bottled water in a Tampa warehouse for firefighters to drink and as a short-term solution in case a large number of wells go dry.

Water officials hope it never gets to that. But they acknowledge that Florida's booming population - nearly 16 million according to the last census - makes drought recovery tough. From 1970 to 1995, the most recent year for which statistics are available, water use increased 30 percent to 7.2 billion gallons a day.

"The problems are too many human beings and too many demands on the water," said state climatologist Jim O'Brien at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

In the Tampa Bay area, the regional utility is overpumping its wellfields north of Tampa because the city's primary water source - the Hillsborough River - is reduced to trickle and too low to meet demands.

"The place is being turned into a desert," said Gilliam Clarke, who has lived next to a well field in Pasco County for 11 years. "Sinkholes are opening up that are running out from the well fields."

In Bonita Springs, about 150 miles south of Tampa, Diana and Greg Holton have seen canals dry up in the neighborhood where they've lived for 18 years. They're concerned their home on the fringe of a forest would be exposed to drought-driven wildfires and wildlife.

"We see gators coming up over the road looking for water," Diana Holton said.

In the nearby farming town of Immokalee, citrus grove manager John Hoffman worries he'll lose part of his orange crop that's used for juice. He hopes for rain as the water table drops closer to his well pumps located 140 feet below ground.

He points to a tree which bears new fruit the color and size of peas. Hoffman said without enough water they won't make it to next spring.

"The day our pumps go dry we can't give them any water," he said.

Residents from Tampa south to Naples, Orlando and South Florida have been hit with severe water restrictions as officials try to stretch the dwindling water supply.

Homeowners are allowed to water their lawns on only two designated days for four hours each day, with the Tampa Bay area limited to once-a-week watering. The rules also mean less irrigation for farmers around Lake Okeechobee.

Even with the restrictions, water managers complain most counties have failed to cut water consumption by the 30 percent goal.

So far, customers haven't had to pay more for their water. But the Tampa Bay area was ordered in late March to cut water use 5 percent over last year. One method could be higher rates for the biggest water users.

Long-term solutions to try to ease a future water crunch are on the horizon. Cities in southwest Florida are building reverse osmosis and desalinization plants, while South Florida is banking on the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration plan, which is intended to conserve fresh water that now flows into the Atlantic.

But by far the most ambitious approach is a plan moving through Florida's Legislature that would allow untreated wastewater to be pumped deep underground into "aquifer storage and recovery" wells.

Supporters say the technology is proven safe and will help South Florida meet its water demands. But environmentalists contend the untreated water could contaminate the freshwater above. They also say officials don't have alternative storage planned if the system doesn't work.

Climatologists say the state will need a busy tropical storm season followed by a wetter-than-normal dry season to get relief from the drought. The rainy season lasts from June 1 to November 30, but is forecast to start later than usual this year.

Heavy rains are needed to recharge the aquifer and the belt of lakes in central Florida that feeds Lake Okeechobee.

If that doesn't happen, the lake will be even lower when the next dry season starts in November, said Strowd, the water district operations director in South Florida. "It's possible we could be in worse shape next year."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 21, 2001


Low Water yes ! Can you say mismanagement ? Can you say poor management? Dade, Broward & Palm Beach counties have no way to store or recover rain water they pump it into the ocean ! During last years Hurricane season while Dade & Broward flooded & pumped the water into the ocean; the S FL water management lowered Lake Okeechobee to try to save the fishery after killing the grass by chemical spraying and high water levels. The rains missed the lake but flooded areas in south florida. The farming community (including big sugar & citrus) uses approximately 70 to 80 % of the water to grow there products that are mainly exported; while back pumping chemical laden water back into the Lake & the canal system. The counties let golf course pump a million gallons plus a day to keep them green , car washes keep there new cars pretty and the cities waters the medians & asphalt. I call it Mismanagement ! Just my 2

-- awdragon (awdragon@yaahoo.com), April 22, 2001.

I am in the Ocala Nationaly Forest and our county is under water restrictions but I have seen no sign of anyone conserving. Right now things like fields and lawns are green as we got some recent rain, but the car washes still operate, you still get water in every eatery, and people water if and when they want to. Its just like the electricity in California. Until they put some bite into the controls, they won't work.

-- Taz (Tassie123@aol.com), April 22, 2001.

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