More than half of the Everglades water conservation areas have gone dry during South Florida's lingering drought, threatening wildlife habitat and straining a key back-up to community water supplies.
Sixty percent or more of the land in the Everglades water conservation areas, west of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, is dry, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
That dry out along with Lake Okeechobee's continued decline are limiting water managers' ability to meet the sometimes competing water needs of the environment, agriculture and community water supplies.
"Water levels are dropping fast," said Deborah Drum, the district's deputy director of Everglades restoration. "We are very close to being almost entirely dry throughout the entire Everglades."
That increases the likelihood of more wildfires, like those that have already been sending smoke toward the coast.
In addition, an expanded dry out would hurt wading bird nesting that had been thriving in still-soggy portions of the water conservation areas.
Aside from providing wildlife habitat, water from the Everglades water conservation areas is used to restock water supplies for South Florida communities.
But water levels in the conservation areas are at or near the "floor" threshold where withdrawals are stopped until conditions improve, according to the district.
Lake Okeechobee water can be used to restock the water conservation areas, but the lake level is more than 2 feet below normal. The lake is fast approaching the point where gravity will no longer send lake water into the drainage canals used to move water south.
Lake Okeechobee was 10.62 feet above sea level on Friday. Flows to the south start getting interrupted when the lake hits 10.5 feet.
The water management district plans to install temporary pumps to keep water flowing south once the lake hits 10.5 feet. But installing the pumps can disrupt water flows for more than a week. Also, once installed the pumps can't deliver as much water as usually moves through the canals.
Sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations south of the lake rely on those canals for irrigation.
Using pumps to keep Lake Okeechobee water flowing south raises concerns for environmentalists worried that the pumping could speed the lake's decline. Low lake levels already threaten the habitat of the endangered Everglades snail kite.
At 10.5 feet, more than 80 percent of the foraging habitat for the snail kite dries out.
And while the pumps would keep water going to agriculture, lake water releases west to protect the Caloosahatchee estuary have been cutoff.
Without an infusion of freshwater from the lake, sea grasses vital to the health of the Caloosahatchee River and West Coast fishing grounds are dying.
"I have a mile wide view of a dying estuary," said Pete Quasius of Audubon of Southwest Florida, who lives near the Caloosahatchee. "We need better water management. … We need some equity."
Lack of South Florida water storage facilities and past water management decisions, not just the drought, account for the current water supply problems.
Safety concerns about Lake Okeechobee's aging dike prompt the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the lake about a foot lower year round to ease the threat of a breach while repairs continue. To lower the lake during rainy periods, the corps during 2010 released more than 300 billion gallons of lake water out to sea.
"We have got to stop dumping (water) east and west," said Mark Perry, Everglades Coalition chairman. "It's just not a wise use of water resources."
To try to stretch water supplies, the district on Thursday approved tougher irrigation limits for agriculture. Agriculture since March has been required to reduce water use 15 percent. Once the lake hits 10.5 feet, that cutback for agriculture goes to 45 percent for growers near the lake.
Twice-a-week watering remains the limit for landscape watering throughout South Florida under the emergency drought measures.
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