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.)

More from Natalia Zea
  • Maria

    As people keep saying, world population is impacting water supplies dramatically.

    Water shortages are predicted for many regions in the US, yet no one discusses slowing down the explosive population growth……

    • rachel

      slow the growth, what like the chinese and stop births limit them to just one. hell we cant even agree on gay marriage that would limit growth married gays dont have children. this country has lots of space and lots of water where it is drought another is wet .

      • Maria

        No one would want a brutal solution like Communist China, but it was tragic/comic that they DID criticize the US, saying “at least China did something” about world overpolulation whereas the US has done nothing.

  • tired

    There should be water restrictions year round! Watering lawns and ornamental plants should not be allowed at all! This a huge waste of one natural resource humans can’t survive without.

  • Aaron

    1. We need Jobs, 2. We’re in a chronic drought, 3. The Mississippi is super saturated, why not dig canals from Ol’Miss to Okeechobee?

    • Phil Gaines Forklift

      Could Gov Rick Scott profit from that? If so, you may have a proposal he’s interested in.
      For now, he’s too busy with drug testing welfare recips and complaining about Obama to his base.

      • rachel

        oh yes, thats right , it must be the presidents fault that the lake is below level.

      • Dan Zoner

        Phil is an idiot, put down the huffpost, msnbc and saul lewinski’s hand book for radicals…..wise up

  • Marybird

    Seems this problem could be alleviated, at least somewhat, if the South Florida Water Management District didn’t drain 3-4 feet of water out of Lake Okeechobee every year near the end of the rainy season, in lieu of fixing the levees surrounding the lake. They whine all over the news media about the lake levels being low, but there isn’t much said about their practice of lowering lake levels in the fall….

  • b

    Rather than increase water restrictions we should enforce the water restrictions we already have. Violations are rampant.

  • tsb

    To prevent breach of the levee and prepare for the rainy season millions of gallons of water are sent to the ocean and gulf. Lets not cry and whine about what we have done on purpose or try to put the blame on us using too much water. It will rain and the lake will refill. Next year lets think about this before we let our water go wasterd into the ocean and gulf.

  • B McLaughlin

    I’ve lived in South Florida since the sixties, and one thing NEVER changes. Crying about water. We don’t have enough. We have too much. What are we going to do ? It never ever ends. So here’s the dirty little secret that no one tells the newbie transplants: you live in an artificial, man made (Army made to be precise), pretend environment. The natural order of things here is a swamp. All of those “arrow straight” canals, and rectangular “lakes” were carved out of what used to be South Florida, to create dry land to build on, and to harvest limestone to build more “stuff”. By trying to “improve” on what was already here, we’ve created multiple problems that we’re always in a panic to repair. Get used to it. We have unbalanced the balance of nature, and we can’t fix it.

  • rachel

    this is not a problem, it is typical florida goes through drought and monsoon. soon we will be complaining the rains are too much. get over it or move.


    Anyone mention to the folks in charge that we’re surrounded by water?
    Figure it out !

    fyi: In Arizona, if a sprinkler is found to be watering the road and not the grass; someone gets a ticket. Here in S Fla it’s common to watch the cities watering the roads and NOTHING is done. Heck, they run them during rain storms!

  • TwanTru

    face the facts: tourists pay for services, but freeloaders who come on tourist visas then get an under the table job use billions of dollars of services without paying for them – including water

  • Splash Jones

    South Florida Water Management is a joke. Anyone check their budget and how much upper management gets paid. How bout fixing the dam levies instead of draining millions of gallons of our water.

  • John

    I agree with Marybird & TSB, everytime the Lake gets way up, instead of holding water in reserve, they let a bunch out and then whine about it later. Those morons couldn’t manage the water in their bathtub, let alone our whole ecosystem.

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