All Floridians have been experiencing one of the most severe droughts in recent memory.
Statewide, the extremely dry conditions have contributed to wildfires, environmental stress, crop loss and the tragic loss of life and property. Climatic conditions for South Florida have been especially dire since last fall when rainfall accumulations between October and January were the lowest since records have been kept.
Although recent precipitation has provided some relief, the events of the past few months should remind all of us of just how vulnerable we are to the frequent swings between adequate water supply and water shortage situations. All Floridians need to realize that as our population continues to grow and our demand for water concurrently increases, that fragile balance will continue to be tested.
The water depth in Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of all of South Floridas water supply needs, is currently at approximately 10.2 feet. Last year at this same point in time, the depth of the lake was above 14 feet. Based on current projections by the South Florida Water Management District, there is a 65 percent chance that the lake will remain in the Water Shortage Management Band throughout this years rainy season.
While the rainfall deficit has certainly played a large role in the current water shortage situation, I believe that an even larger contributing factor is the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers has been forced to lower the operational stage of the lake because of the uncertainty of the stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike. If not for the instability of the dike, water levels in the lake today would be almost 2 feet higher than they are. Still low in comparison to other years, but a dramatically better scenario than the one we face now.
I believe that repairing the dike is of critical importance to the future water supply needs of all of South Florida. If we are unable to rehabilitate the dike and return the Lake Okeechobee stage operations schedule to one that more closely reflects the schedule prior to discovering that the dike was vulnerable, then we will be in an almost constant state of water shortage for all legal water users.
It is important for all of us to recognize that our access to fresh water is not unlimited. All over Florida, from the Panhandle through the Suwannee River Basin, to the greater Orlando and Tampa Bay regions, we see evidence that our demand and use of fresh water is outpacing the natural systems ability to provide supply.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations to conserve and protect the water supply we do have, and work together cooperatively to identify and fund the development of alternative water supplies to meet our needs into the future.
Adam Putnam is Florida's commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.