Okeechobee water levels well below norm for time of year

Sept. 12, 2007
The water level in Lake Okeechobee was 9.58 feet above sea level this morning, 0.86 feet below the previous historic low for this date of 10.44 feet above sea level, recorded on Sept. 10, 1956. According to water managers at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the growing disparity between current lake level readings and previous historic lows suggests that South Florida may experience back-to-back water shortage years for the first time since the early 1980s...

• Leading indicator of regional water supply conditions points to possibility of prolonged water shortages next dry season

WEST PALM BEACH, FL, Sept. 10, 2007 -- The water level in Lake Okeechobee was 9.58 feet above sea level this morning, 0.86 feet below the previous historic low for this date of 10.44 feet above sea level, recorded on Sept. 10, 1956. According to water managers at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the growing disparity between current lake level readings and previous historic lows suggests that South Florida may experience back-to-back water shortage years for the first time since the early 1980s.

Lake Okeechobee water levels have set new record daily lows since early June, culminating in an all-time record low of 8.82 feet above sea level on July 3, 2007. A year ago today, the lake's water level was 13.26 feet above sea level, 3.68 feet higher than this morning's reading, leading up to one of the most severe water shortages in South Florida history.

Despite near average rainfall for June and July, August 2007 was the driest August since 1987 and ranks as the fourth driest on record since 1932, yielding District-wide rainfall of only 4.67 inches, or 62 percent of the historical average for the month. At only 30 inches, or 79 percent of the historical average through Friday, Sept. 7, year-to-date average rainfall also remains well below normal for the 16-county region. Historically low water levels persist in central and northern portions of the District, as rainfall patterns have continued to favor southeastern residential areas.

"Without the sort of rainfall only associated with slow-moving tropical depressions, water levels in Lake Okeechobee are likely to remain below previous record lows through at least September," said SFWMD Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle. "Because the lake is such a reliable indicator of the regional water supply, these readings suggest South Florida could be headed for another severe water shortage year. With no guarantees of above average rainfall to replenish the system, we must begin to contemplate and prepare for another regional water shortage during the next dry season."

The largest water body in South Florida's water management system, Lake Okeechobee is a primary backup water supply to five million South Floridians and provides water for irrigation across more than 500,000 acres of farmland south of the lake. By stirring up sediments and concentrating harmful nutrients, back to back active hurricane seasons followed by an extended water shortage have impacted both the quantity and quality of water in the lake over the past three years. Water managers took advantage of the drought this year by removing nearly two million cubic yards of exposed phosphorus-laden muck from the lake. The muck removal will help restore habitat and improve future water quality by reducing phosphorus levels in the lake, which last year averaged 200 parts per billion.

The official Lake Okeechobee water elevation is reported each day by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the average of four state-of-the-art monitoring stations located within the lake basin. The South Florida dry season usually begins in November and continues through May, with lake levels normally rising during the wet season and falling during the dry season.

Water Restrictions Still in Effect
Extreme water shortage conditions persist in the Everglades Agricultural Area and in portions of Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee, Martin and western Palm Beach counties, which remain in full Phase III water restrictions. Due to below average rainfall and subsequent low groundwater levels in the District's Lower West Coast, full Phase II restrictions remain in place for Lee and portions of Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties. Landscape irrigation in St. Lucie, Martin, eastern Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties remains limited to two days per week in most areas.

The SFWMD continues to encourage both residential and agricultural water users throughout the District to voluntarily reduce water consumption and conserve water.

The South Florida Water Management District is a regional, governmental agency that oversees the water resources in the southern half of the state -- 16 counties from Orlando to the Keys. It is the oldest and largest of the state's five water management districts. The agency mission is to manage and protect water resources of the region by balancing and improving water quality, flood control, natural systems and water supply. A key initiative is cleanup and restoration of the Everglades.

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