Will dry conditions in South Florida lead to lawn-watering restrictions?

by Andy Reid, originally posted on December 8, 2016


Your dried-out, brown lawn could be a sign of water-supply strains to come this winter, South Florida officials warned Thursday.

Above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall are forecast to continue through February. And after the driest November on record, water managers are preparing for the possibility that a few dry weeks could turn into a drought.

It could lead to tougher lawn watering limits for South Florida residents so accustomed to running their sprinklers.

“I’m not quite willing to press the ‘drought’ button. … We are not quite there yet,” said John Mitnik, the South Florida Water Management District’s chief engineer. “We will see what Mother Nature brings us.”

The drier conditions already have the district trying to hold onto more rainfall, which during the soggy summer and fall had been drained out to sea to protect neighborhoods from flooding.

An average of just .14 inches of rain fell from Orlando to the Keys during November, the lowest November total since record-keeping began in 1932, according to the district.

Also in November, Lake Okeechobee — South Florida’s backup water supply — dropped nearly a foot. That followed 10 months of high-lake levels that triggered draining billions of gallons of lake water out to sea each day to avoid flooding threats for lakeside towns.

On Thursday, the lake was 14.70 feet above sea level, considered normal for this time of year.

Yet drier conditions have the lake dropping faster than expected.

In November, water district projections showed just a 10 percent chance that the lake level would drop low enough to trigger water shortage concerns before summer rains bring relief. On Thursday that projection increased to a 20 percent chance — still low but on the rise.

“Things have dried up dramatically,” said Terrie Bates, the water management district’s director of water resources.

Landscape watering accounts for about half of public water use and cutting back on sprinkling is a primary target of conservation efforts, especially during droughts.

South Florida has year-round lawn watering rules aimed to boost conservation, though enforcement has been lax. Tougher landscape irrigation limits can still be imposed during droughts.

Lawn watering rules can vary city to city. For most of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, lawn watering is currently limited to two days a week. For most of Palm Beach County, lawn watering is limited to three times per week.

Despite the historically dry weather, current water supplies from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades remain in good shape, according to the water management district.

Lake water is being moved south to boost South Florida supplies. And portions of the Everglades stretching through western Broward and Palm Beach County still have enough water to help restock community drinking water supplies, according to the district.

“We are being cautious about how we (drain) water out of the system,” Mitnik said.

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