Low Lake Okeechobee Levels Concern Water Managers

WEST PALM BEACH (CBS4) — The water level in Lake Okeechobee has fallen below 10 feet above sea level for the first time since 2007.

Today, the lake level stands at 9.89 feet above sea level which is about a foot from the all time low of 8.82 feet hit in July of 2007. Last year at this time, the last sat at 14.58, the average for this time is 13.3 feet.

Captain Mark Shepard, who has plied the waters of the lake for years, said the level is so low that rocky islands are popping up all over.

“You don’t see any rocks usually, they’re underwater,” said Sheppard who pointed out a boat with damage on its hull.  “That’s just one of the boats which tried to make it across the lake lately, and it didn’t have such good luck.”

But it’s not all bad news.  The lower water level is helping the lake bed’s grassy beds grow even thicker.

“In a lot of ways it’s going to be fantastic.  It’s letting these grass beds get stronger and stronger and bigger and bigger and as the water comes back, it’s just more habitat for the native,” said Sheppard.

For Julio Acevedo a green lawn and thriving plants mean much more than just a nice yard.

“For me to work the land, it’s a sense of pride,” he told CBS4’s Natalia Zea.

Acevedo treats his plants like family.

“I talk to my plants, I really do,” he said.

But the extreme drought has made it tough to keep his lawn and plants alive.

“It’s dying. My baby’s dying,” he said as he cradled browned leaves of a palm plant.

Because of the lack of rain many homeowners aren’t rushing out to by new plants for landscaping and nursery owners and farmers say that is bad for business.

“We’re short, we’re short of water and we’re starting to feel the economic effects,” said Coast To Coast Nursery owner Manny Rivero.

Rivero says the lower demand cost his small farm $30,000 dollars in May.

He also has to irrigate his plants more which cuts into profits.

“The year before last we didn’t turn on our irrigation system in the entire month of June because it rained so hard and so often…this year, we haven’t stopped.”

Rivero is even ready to do a rain dance if that will help.

“Right now I’m praying to anybody that can help us bring some rain.”

For now the two-day a week watering restrictions are remaining as they are, according to South Florida Water Management District Division Director of Water Resources Terrie Bates. The governing board could reconsider that at a meeting this week.

One reason is that so far there has not been any salt water intrusion or increased chloride levels in coastal wells.

“The good thing is unlike in 2007 we really haven’t seen substantial levels of change,” Bates said. “But we continue to monitor those every week. That would be a trigger to potentially increase restrictions.”

Water restrictions for farmers and nurseries remain the same.

They were ordered in March to cut back water usage by 45 percent. But right now, officials at the South Florida Water Management district say they’re getting less water, because pumps cannot move that much water. If the lake drops to 8 feet, the pumps will stop, because they can no longer reach the water.

“You get concerned but all you can do is pray for a little bit of rain,” said John Evans, an area farmer who relies on Lake Okeechobee in the dry season.

At a meeting of district officials last Thursday, it was decided to have six more pumps installed at the south end of Lake Okeechobee, which fell to 9.96 feet Saturday morning, to pump water from the lake to nearby farms. Those pumps should be operating within the next week, bringing the total number of pumps to 10.

As of now there are four pumps in the lake that were installed May 27.

This week the officials will meet to discuss if it is necessary to install pumps in a canal in Miami.

But Bates said they are trying to refrain from putting in more pumps while they still can rely on gravity to move the water out of the lake.

“We’d prefer to do it by gravity as long as we can,” said Bates.

Of course this all depends on how much water the rainy season brings.

“If we don’t have a pretty significant rainfall we’re going to start next year’s dry season at a lower level with greater restrictions earlier in the year because we’d be starting with a deficit,” said Bates.

The rainy season, which started May 26, has been off to a slow start.

But, National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Robert Molleda says there is a chance of having an above average amount of rainfall in the later part of the season.

However, it might be enough only to alleviate the drought, not eliminate it.

From October through May 31 West Palm Beach recorded only 10.45 inches of rain, only about 30 percent of what normal rainfall is, Molleda said.

One upside to the low lake levels, the fishing is great, if you can get to areas deep enough for the fish to swim.

Right now, water managers will be keeping a close eye on coastal wells. If they begin to notice salt water intrusion, water restrictions could get tighter.

(© 2011 The Associated Press and The Miami Herald contributed to this report. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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