TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — Even with tough new water-use restrictions and farmers' conservation measures, the Everglades might still need to be tapped to ensure ample drinking water for South Florida, water managers told Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on Monday.
At an emergency meeting on Florida's drought, the political leaders also learned that the state appears to be destined for more than a summer's dry spell and heavy wildfire season. State disaster planners said Florida might be entering a two- or three-year drought cycle that could burden the agricultural industry and pose new challenges for growth in South Florida.
More immediately, though, authorities are concerned about a decision over whether and when to lower Everglades water conservation areas beyond current limits that protect wildlife.
South Florida Water Management District officials have asked the Army Corps of Engineers for permission to let the conservation areas dip below current limits for releases of water in precise areas and for limited periods.
The conservation areas are swampy government-owned lands in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties that act as underground reservoirs. Lowering them could pose an immediate threat to wading birds, fish and alligators, state environmental officials say. And in the long term, lowering the water storage areas, they say, risks a further invasion of nonnative plants, such as melaleucas.
But not lowering the conservation areas in a sustained drought could allow damaging saltwater to infiltrate the water supply systems for dozens of cities and towns in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Saltwater intrusion, Nelson said, must be avoided because, once contaminated, the well fields -- the tap from which millions of people in South Florida draw their water -- could be rendered useless for years.