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South Florida may tap conservation areas

Published April 17, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - To counteract a worsening drought in South Florida, the Army Corps of Engineers has considered taking water from conservation areas to prevent saltwater from damaging wells on the east coast, Gov. Charlie Crist learned in a briefing Monday.

Taking water from the region's three conservation areas, which could harm wildlife such as fish and endangered species of birds, may be necessary because of the extremely low water level in Lake Okeechobee - which is usually the backup water source in South Florida.

But Crist and other officials said dipping into those conservation areas, which are the remnants of the Everglades, would be a last-ditch effort to provide the public with drinking water. The state requested earlier this year that the corps, which regulates the water levels, look into allowing water out of the conservation areas.

"We will exhaust any and all avenues, including draconian water restrictions, before asking for that water," said Carol Wehle, director of the South Florida Water Management District.

If water was taken from the conservation areas, Wehle said, it could not be used for irrigation. Agriculture accounts for 52 percent of water demand in South Florida, while 37 percent is used by the public.

Florida received 5.88 inches of rainfall during the first three months of the year, more than 4 inches below normal, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Lake Okeechobee is at the lowest elevation ever recorded in April.

Officials' greatest concern is the potential for saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean to seep into the water wells close to the state's eastern coast. If that happens, those wells could be unusable for as long as 10 years.

The corps is constantly monitoring the salt level in the wells.

[Last modified April 17, 2007, 00:41:40]

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