Brown Christmas for S. Florida

MIAMI, Florida – Details were still being tweaked Wednesday on what will be the tightest water-use restrictions ever imposed in South Florida, but one thing seemed certain: It’s shaping up to be a brown Christmas.

The South Florida Water Management District’s governing board will vote Thursday on an unprecedented round of restrictions that are expected to include a ban on lawn sprinkling more than once a week, reports the Miami Herald.

The emergency order is intended to combat a water shortage district managers have warned could be the deepest and most expensive South Florida has faced. Lake Okeechobee stands at historic lows and forecasters are predicting a dryer-than-normal winter for a region that never fully recovered from the 18-month drought leading up to this summer’s rainy season.

”We’ve basically got what we’ve got in the system, and we’ve got to find a way to stretch it out,” said Jesus Rodriguez, a spokesman for the district, which oversees the water supply from the southern suburbs of Orlando to Key West.

Though the southeastern coast, particularly Miami-Dade County, received normal or above-average rain this summer, the storms didn’t replenish Lake Okeechobee and areas to the north and west. The big lake, sometimes called the liquid heart of South Florida, has been running low for two years, in part because state and federal water managers at the time released hurricane flood waters to reduce risks that the lake’s aging dike might fail.

The lake, which is tapped by surrounding farms and communities and serves as a backup supply for coastal cities, has hovered around five feet below normal and has recorded nearly six straight months of record daily lows. Groundwater levels along the Southwest coast remain two to four feet below normal.

Water managers don’t expect relief until next summer. Scientists predict a dry winter, and last month was the fifth-driest November on record, with just under one-fifth of an inch recorded districtwide.

While some communities have previously limited watering to once a week, including the city of West Palm Beach, water managers have never before ordered such a severe restriction on the entire region. Irrigation systems consume about half of all household water.

Most of the urban Southeast coast, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, were placed on twice-weekly watering schedules during the summer.

Rodriguez said managers are still tinkering with some specifics. Unlike in the past, for instance, when watering was allowed only in the morning to reduce evaporation losses, they may allow homeowners to water either in the morning or evening because utilities are worried about a dangerous drop in water pressure.

”It can create a real problem to deliver that amount of water all at once,” Rodriguez said.

While the cuts would likely take place immediately, water managers are pondering a one-month grace period to educate the public before starting to write tickets for violations.

Farms and nurseries, which were ordered to cut use nearly by half earlier this year, face continued restrictions as well, but water managers say they are trying to ease economic loses. The industry claimed hundreds of millions of dollars in lost crops and sales during the drought and warned of catastrophic losses in the coming year if cutbacks continue.

One new proposal, for instance, would extend exemptions for new plantings so that homeowners or businesses could water almost daily, under restricted hours, for up to 60 days. That’s to accommodate nursery owners’ concerns that the water-use cuts would destroy their sales, Rodriguez said.

”The goal is to achieve our intended cutback targets with as little impact as possible on utilities, farms and businesses,” he said.

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