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Everglades supply cut off to north Broward as drought deepens
By NEIL SANTANIELLO, Sun-Sentinel Web-posted: 12:44 a.m. Feb. 24, 2001
In a sign of increasing concern about water supplies, water managers this week began denying Everglades water to a part of north Broward County, and said they soon will withhold it from other communities, too.
Water managers closed a gate at the west end of Atlantic Boulevard in Coral Springs, shutting off overland water deliveries from the central Everglades to part of north Broward County.
With levels dropping throughout South Florida's water system, managers decided to keep more of the increasingly precious water in the rural wetlands, rather than let it flow to the brown-tinged grasses of suburbia.
Water Conservation Area 2 -- which feeds a canal and helps restock groundwater levels in north Broward -- had dropped below its "floor," the point at which managers can no longer send water to cities and towns without harming Everglades wildlife, water managers said. The significance: Water tables and canal and lake levels will fall faster now in Margate, Pompano Beach, Tamarac and Fort Lauderdale, and landscapes will turn brown more quickly, the South Florida Water Management District said. "This is the first of the local indications that things are getting bad for us," said Roy Reynolds, water management director for Broward County. Broward is just the first domino. Other Everglades gates soon will be closing too, water managers said. Palm Beach County likely will be next. It is close to being pinched off from the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge -- a north Everglades reservoir tapped to help farms irrigate crops and to prevent urban wells that feed city water-treatment plants from running dry. The shutoff from Everglades water won't be total; coastal water tables will still be fed with water seeping out of that ecosystem underground and toward the east.
"I can say without relief in a month or two we're going to be in real trouble," said Patrick Martin, an engineer for the Lake Worth Drainage District, the agency that makes those refuge withdrawals. Some "relief" may come during the first two weeks of March. Weather patterns suggest that the coast could see some "nice rain" then, but nothing that could break a drought, water district meteorologist Eric Swartz said.
"Not heavy stuff," Swartz said. It will be "enough that people could ... skip a couple of watering cycles on their lawns." The long-range outlook is more dismal. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center is now forecasting below-average rain through August. That would delay the start of summer rains, which had been hoped for in May or June, and leave the landscape even more water-starved and flammable. It also could mean a continued, harsher drought next winter. "We'll have to wait and see," Swartz said. "The wet season is very difficult to forecast." The water district said it will have no choice but to shut the Everglades gates if there is no rain relief and the region grows drier and drier.
Federal rules require that when Water Conservation Area 1, 2 or 3 falls too low, those compartments of the Everglades cannot feed coastal communities unless the water siphoned out is replaced by water brought in from Lake Okeechobee. But the 730-square-mile lake, South Florida's backup water spigot, is seriously depleted for lack of rain, too. The water district is saving the dwindling lake water for drier conditions in the months to come. The reserve water could then be poured into canals and steered toward the coast to seep underground, forming a wall of fresh water to keep salt water from the Atlantic Ocean from creeping into and ruining wells that send water to city water plants. "We're being real stingy with the water in Lake Okeechobee," said Tommy Strowd, water district operations chief.
Water supplies in the western suburbs will suffer as eastern water tables are propped up to ward off that salt water, but it is easier to lay new sod across a toasted lawn than to replace a salt-contaminated well field, said Ken Ammon, water district water supply division director.
"We're going to be delivering as much water as we can to the east and dropping water levels to the west," Ammon said. "Quite frankly, lawns are going to be taking a back seat." "What we're doing is rationing as best we can and micromanaging as best we can all the water we have left in the system."
If cities run too thin on water, the water district could ask the Army Corps of Engineers to allow the Everglades to be siphoned lower than currently permitted. . The Lake Worth Drainage District already is lobbying the corps to pull water out of the Loxahatchee Refuge below its regulatory floor.
But Ammon said the water district is unlikely to do that unless farmers and communities show they are sharing the adversity and conserving water better. Water restrictions limit lawn-watering and car-washing to two days a week with a conservation goal of 30 percent.
Counties are falling well short of that mark. Palm Beach County, for instance, is reducing water use about 3 percent compared to January 2000.
"People have taken this lightly, like a hurricane warning," Ammon said. "This one, they are going to feel some pain. Apparently until they feel pain they are not going to conserve to the levels that we need." Neil Santaniello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6625.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), February 24, 2001
They could learn the lessons from the OPEC nations. They remove the salt from sea water. They could learn to change those manicured lawns into sculptured beaches.
-- John Littmann (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 24, 2001.