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Drought may get worse in South Florida without rain

By Staff | Mar 10, 2009

With February’s end, the 2008-2009 South Florida dry season became the third driest on record dating back to 1932. Water levels in the 16-county South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) are declining, and the stage is set for drought conditions to worsen if adequate rain does not fall. The forecast of persistent dry conditions through the remainder of the dry season underscores the need for continued conservation to stretch the water supply.

The latest SFWMD reports show an average of 0.41 inches of rain fell across the region in February, which is 1.78 inches less than the historical average for the month. Rainfall for the dry season is down 6.65 inches to date from the historical average, with several months left before the wet season begins. Forecasters are predicting below average rainfall to continue through April.

Along with District data, a report from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that much of South Florida is already experiencing a moderate drought. The East Coast, from approximately Martin to Miami-Dade counties, is listed as being in a severe drought. Drought conditions across the region are expected to persist or intensify through May, according to the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service.

“Declining rainfall numbers illustrate how vital water conservation is to South Florida, not just during the dry season but year round,” said SFWMD Executive Director Carol Ann Wehle. “Through conservation, residents can continue to play a crucial role in sustaining the water supply.”

Landscape irrigation remains restricted to two days a week for a majority of the region, home to approximately 7.5 million residents. The measures were instituted to protect the public water supply and meet growing demands amid the parched conditions. More information about irrigation limits by area is available on the District’s water restrictions Web site.

The need for water conservation is underscored by Florida’s weather extremes during the past few years. Records show 2006 and 2007 were the driest back-to-back calendar years based on data dating back to 1932. The rainfall deficit was more than 20 inches, and Lake Okeechobee’s water level fell to an all-time record low of 8.82 feet NGVD on July 2, 2007.

Tropical Storm Fay briefly lifted the region out of its two-year drought in August 2008, dropping an average of 7.5 inches of rain across the District in six days. The storm caused Lake Okeechobee to rise from 11.34 feet on August 19 to 13.63 feet on August 26, the first time in recorded history that the lake level increased more than 2 feet in a single week.

But November 2008 saw a return to dry weather. Lake Okeechobee’s water level was 12.61 feet as of March 6. The water level stands nearly 2 feet below the historical average for the date, although it remains more than 2.5 feet higher than what was reported in 2008.

District meteorologists reported that a more complete rainfall picture will emerge in the final few months of the dry season and noted that an above average start to the wet season, which typically begins in June, could help the region’s water supply significantly.

With the dry trend continuing, the District is promoting water conservation for its many benefits in meeting the growing demands on the limited water supply. As part of that effort, the District is moving forward with the rule development process for expanding year-round landscape irrigation conservation measures, already in place in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties, across the District’s entire 16-county region.

Read more about the District’s water conservation plan and get tips on saving water at www.savewaterfl.com. For more weather data, visit www.sfwmd.gov.