Lake Okeechobee's water levels matched a historic low Wednesday as South Florida's worst known drought continued into rainy season, threatening a key water supply for nearly 5 million people and the Everglades.
Not only that, but a fire broke out on part of the exposed lake bottom.
The South Florida Water Management District expected the record of 8.97 feet from May 24, 2001, to evaporate by Thursday. The average water level should be around 13 feet this time of year in the second-largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States.
The 12,000-acre fire started Monday in the vegetation left to dry in the sun as waters receded from the lake’s northwest rim, said Melissa Yunas, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Forestry.
“All the water is not there. Now it’s just vegetation, all dried out, just sitting on the side of the lake,” Yunas said.
The cause of the fire was unknown. It was about 50 percent contained, Yunas said.
Only isolated showers were forecast over the lake until the weekend, when more substantial rain was expected, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters said any rain would only stabilize its levels temporarily because more rain was still needed farther north in the Kissimmee River valley, which feeds the lake.
Only an above-average rainy season will help replenish the lake, officials said. While the summer-through-fall downpours have started in parts of South Florida, weather forecasters say significant drought relief is not likely until September at the earliest.
"If we have below-average or even average rainfall, we could come out of rainy season and still be in a drought," said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
“The Everglades are also in a drought. We’ve totally lost the backup for the water supply for the east coast” of Florida, Wehle added.
Sign of problems elsewhere
The months-long drought has led to severe water restrictions for homes and businesses across the state, and the lake's low water levels reflect groundwater levels throughout South Florida, officials said. The region is largely dependent on the lake during dry periods, when it can be used as a reservoir.
Four coastal wells in Palm Beach and Broward counties have been closed as their levels dropped to prevent contamination from salt water, putting more pressure on wells farther inland, Wehle said.
Citrus growers and other farmers have already been ordered to cut their water use by half, and the most severe residential restrictions could be extended through counties surrounding the lake, she said.
"If Lake Okeechobee doesn't get sufficient rainfall, the impact of a drought next year could be more serious," Wehle said.
The last time water levels rose in the lake was after Tropical Storm Ernesto brushed past Florida in August, according to the Jacksonville district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake level rose 1.5 feet to 13.5 feet after that storm, said Andrew Geller, a corps hydraulic engineer.
"That was the end of our significant rainfall," Geller said.
Silver lining: No breach
The low water levels, however, have temporarily ended the threat of a massive breach of the earthen dike around the lake in a hurricane or heavy rains.
"There's almost no possibility of it breaching at this level," said Alan Bugg, the corps chief of construction and operations in Jacksonville.
Officials caution that back-to-back drenching hurricanes in the Kissimmee River valley or over the lake could fill it up again.
The corps has an $856 million plan to fix the dike, a project that could take 15 to 20 years. A state-commissioned report released last year noted the 143-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike bore "a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese." Construction began on the dike in the 1930s after thousands of people died when the lake overflowed in hurricanes in 1926 and 1928.
The drought has allowed officials to start clearing 500,000 cubic yards of rotted plant life and sediment from the southwest portion of the 730-square-mile freshwater lake, the second-largest in the contiguous United States. Removing the muck will return the lake bottom along the shoreline in that area to a more sandy base, and create clearer water and better habitat for plants and wildlife, officials have said.