Lake Okeechobee boat lock in 2004 (left) and on May 30, 2007.
Brown golf courses. Record low levels in Lake Okeechobee. For the first time, once-a-week lawn watering restrictions in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Twice-a-week watering in Martin and St. Lucie counties. Saltwater threatening freshwater aquifers.
The spring of 2007 saw south Florida turn a corner with respect to water, as the prospect emerged that taps in the region could actually run dry. After 17 months of drought, temporary inconveniences that once extended only until the next rainy season are likely to become much more permanent.
At the least, water restrictions will continue indefinitely. Could they tighten? “If our rainy season is below average, we could mandate no outdoor watering,” says Chip Merriam, deputy executive director of South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). “We could be looking at a multiyear drought with devastating effects.” A similar drought in 2001 created agricultural losses totaling about $400 million.
The water situation also is likely to boost calls for the region to begin developing alternative supplies and reuse capabilities. Miami-Dade and Broward counties account for about a fourth of Florida’s population and generate 33% of the state’s domestic wastewater, according to a 2003 state report. Yet the two counties account for less than 4% of all reuse capacity in the state. Reuse could extend supplies for decades but will take years and millions to implement.
At some point, the impact of the drought could begin to pinch growth. SFWMD has already imposed restrictions on future pumping, requiring communities to use alternative sources in planning future growth. So far, no one has suggested any kind of growth moratorium, but most in the business community are aware of the drought’s implications. “We need to build with conservation in mind,” says Dennis Gilkey, the former CEO of the Bonita Bay Group who now heads real estate consulting group Gilkey Organization. “We’ll begin to see this happen at the volunteer and regulatory level.”