Drought saps growers' resources

In South Florida, the dry spell is browning greens and starving the agriculture industry.

Associated Press
Published May 22, 2007

PALM BEACH GARDENS - The fairways here are flecked, the greens mottled brown. The PGA National Resort & Spa doesn't look like a marquee golf course.

"We'll talk to people about it in the pro shop when they check in and say, 'You might notice things are a little bit browner today, ' " said Joel Paige, managing director at the course.

Florida's bottom half is in an 18-month drought, and signs of the problem are everywhere - from the links to the nursery and sugar cane industries.

Lake Okeechobee, the region's primary reservoir, is down to 9.3 feet above sea level - less than half a foot above its record low. Farmers and the area's 600 golf courses must use 45 percent less water in the hardest-hit areas, and home sprinklers are restricted to once a week.

Officials are comparing the drought to another in 2001 that caused an estimated $400 million in agricultural losses.

"We can honestly say this is one of the most severe droughts that we have dating back to when records started in the early 1900s, " said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.

The $15-billion landscaping and nursery industries might be getting hit the hardest by the drought. It is the largest sector of Florida agriculture and second nationally behind California. Its growers are concentrated around Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the rain-starved Atlantic Coast.

"We can make drought-tolerant and water-efficient plants, and we can put the right plants in the right place, but we have yet to figure out how to make it rain, " said Ben Bolusky, executive vice president of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association.

The cane sugar industry is also bracing for a big hit. U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said crops were already worse than the 2001 drought. The company is the nation's leading producer of cane sugar. The drought is compounding damage from some earlier cold weather.

"We had probably three freeze spells in winter that knocked some of the young cane back to the ground, " Sanchez said. "It did not have adequate water, so some of the cane that was frost-damaged has not recovered its growth."

Authorities hope the rainy season, which typically begins June 1, will wash away the trouble, but the area is so dry that even an average summer wouldn't break the drought.