South Florida water supply suffers from Lake Okeechobee's levels

Lake Okeechobee's declining water levels are pushing South Florida's backup water supplies to a "critical point," water managers say, as the wait continues for drought-quenching summer rains.

That means twice-a-week landscape watering limits for homes and businesses will remain for the foreseeable future, while cutbacks for sugar cane growers and other agricultural users near Lake Okeechobee are soon expected to hit 45 percent, South Florida Water Management District officials said Wednesday.

Lake Okeechobee serves as South Florida's primary backup water supply, but on Wednesday it neared the point where it would drop too low to keep sending water south.

The lake hit 10.57 feet on Wednesday, 2.7 feet below normal.

At 10.5 feet the lake would be too low for gravity to keep sending water to the canals that deliver lake water that sugar cane growers and other agriculture rely on for irrigation.

"It becomes very difficult to move water," Susan Sylvester, district director of operations, said. "We are really looking for those wet season rains to kick in."

Man-made problems, not just a drought, contribute to South Florida's water supply strain.

Flood control for communities and farms built on what used to be the Everglades leads to stormwater getting drained out to sea, instead of held for times of need.

During 2010, more than 300 billion gallons of lake water was drained out to sea because of flood control concerns.

As dry as the outlook is now, one drenching tropical storm that settles over Lake Okeechobee could change the water supply situation. Hurricane season starts on June 1.