Low Lake Okeechobee Levels Threaten Fla. Farmers

August 9, 2007

Farmers around Lake Okeechobee will face serious financial difficulties if officials can’t figure out a way to get its water level up, state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said Tuesday.

He said the drought has already caused more than $100 million in losses this year, and that some estimates predict losses could exceed $1 billion over the next two years if the dry spell does not end. Continued crop losses will also likely increase food prices, he noted.

He said most farmers do not believe there is sufficient water in the reservoir to get them through the state’s dry season over the coming winter, threatening production of winter vegetable production as well as citrus and sugar crops.

Some likely won’t plant in the fall, Bronson added.

The lake stores irrigation water for about 700,000 acres of normally highly productive farmland in South Florida, but it has been about 4 feet below its normal levels during an 18-month drought.

Water managers said last month that the Kissimmee River basin that feeds the lake needed about 5 feet of rain just to catch up. While South Florida has been getting more rainfall of late, it’s still not back to normal levels, Bronson said.

“Think about it – would you invest hundreds of thousands of dollars planting crops with the prospects of having an insufficient water supply to keep them alive?” he said.

“If there’s any hope of avoiding a financial meltdown, it’s absolutely essential that the state, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers do everything possible to increase water levels in Lake Okeechobee,” he said in a statement.

Water management district spokesman Randy Smith said agency officials are trying to determine if there is anything they can do in the short term to increase the amount of water flowing into the lake. But he said lake level ultimately is determined by rainfall, which the agency can’t control.

Smith said that money lawmakers set aside earlier this year for more water storage in the river basin area north of the lake will help in the long run, but that is not an immediate fix.

The agency plans to meet Wednesday to consider its options.

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