It’s been a relatively dry summer.
As of September 11, Lake Okeechobee stood at 12.55 feet. That’s about 2 feet lower than this time last year. Last week, the lake officially entered what’s known as the “water shortage management band” — a point where water managers can implement water restrictions if necessary and South Florida Water Management District steps in to determine release volumes from Lake O.
But let’s not sound the drought alarm bells just yet.
Typically the biggest concern during rainy season is that Lake O will rise too fast, threatening the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike and triggering damaging discharges to the northern estuaries — but that has not been the case this summer. Instead of steady lake rise, we saw lake levels flatten early on and then slowly drop, as the not-so-rainy season left us with a 2 inch rainfall deficit for the year to date.
Predictably, the receding lake level has prompted some allies of Big Sugar to clamor for the protection of water supply, a.k.a. irrigation for big agriculture including sugarcane south of the lake. But as SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett pointed out last week, we’ve still got a significant portion of the rainy season ahead of us — meaning there’s still plenty of potential for the system to correct itself, or even over-deliver water. As the Army Corps’ Col. James Booth put it, “One major storm could change the conversation.”
For now, the SFWMD has not indicated any immediate need to move towards widespread water restrictions, though as individual stewards of the environment, now’s the time we should all be watching our water usage. Unfortunately, the environment is always first to receive cutbacks to beneficial water. Water managers have already discontinued beneficial releases west to the Caloosahatchee (for the time being) as local basin runoff fills in the gap that keeps salinity in check.
These relatively dry conditions have materialized at an interesting time for water policy. The Army Corps is finalizing the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will determine when and where water moves for the next decade.
As we enter the final two months of rainy season, it will be more important than ever to hew to the facts on the ground (and in the lake) — and not get distracted by alarmists who might like to use a drought to their political advantage.