U.S. Water News Online
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- To counteract a worsening drought in
South Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has considered taking
water from conservation areas to prevent salt water from damaging
wells on the east coast, Gov. Charlie Crist learned in a briefing.
Taking water from the region's three conservation areas, which
could harm wildlife such as fish and endangered species of birds, may
be necessary because of the extremely low water level in Lake
Okeechobee -- which is usually the backup water source in South
But Crist and other officials said dipping into those conservation
areas, which are the remnants of the Everglades, would be a last
ditch effort to provide the public with drinking water. The state
requested earlier this year that the corps, which regulates the water
levels, look into allowing water out of the conservation areas.
"We will exhaust any and all avenues, including draconian water
restrictions, before asking for that water," said Carol Wehle,
director of the South Florida Water Management District.
If water was taken from the conservation areas, Wehle said, it
could not be used for irrigation. Agriculture accounts for 52 percent
of water demand in South Florida, while 37 percent is used by the
Florida received 5.88 inches of rainfall during the first three
months of the year, more than four inches below normal, according to
the state Department of Environmental Protection. Lake Okeechobee is
currently at a level of 10.08 feet, which is the lowest elevation
ever recorded in April. Officials are concerned the lake could
eclipse its 2001 record low of 8.9 feet if drought patterns continue.
Crist, DEP Secretary Michael Sole, Agriculture Commissioner
Charles Bronson and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson were among the participants
in the briefing on the drought and current water restrictions in
Officials' greatest concern is the potential for salt water from
the Atlantic Ocean to seep into the water wells close to the state's
eastern coast. If that happens, those wells could be unusable for as
long as 10 years, the amount of time it could take for fresh water to
adequately dilute the salt water.
In dangerous drought conditions, the canals that fill the wells
with water become too low. When that fresh water isn't being pushed
into the wells, it can allow salt water to seep in from the east.
The corps is constantly monitoring the salt level in the wells and
can move quickly to allow water out of the conservation areas if
needed, Col. Paul Grosskruger, the Jacksonville District Commander,
said during the briefing.
For now, Crist stressed the importance of water restrictions and
public conservation efforts.
"We want to do everything we can to protect the wildlife and
obviously we want to be cautious and protective of our people," Crist
said. "So hopefully we won't get to that point where you have to
juxtapose one against the other."
Water restrictions are currently in place for the 16 counties in
the South Florida Water Management District. Residents of Palm Beach,
Broward and Miami-Dade counties, for example, are currently under
Phase II restrictions and must limit outdoor water use.
The drought has also cast scrutiny on South Florida's low usage of
treated, or reclaimed, waste water, which Sole attributed to the
cheapness and abundance of water over the past 50 years.
Crist called on the region to use more reclaimed water, like other
regions in the state.
"It occurs to me that it would be a lot smarter if we did a lot
more reclamation in South Florida," he said.
Major statewide or regional droughts occurred in the early 1970s,
early 80s, 1989-1990, and 1999-2001, with 2000 being the driest year
on record in the South Florida district.
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