Concerns are rising about falling Lake Okeechobee water levels

James Alderman 1.jpg
Longtime grower James Alderman inspects produce Tuesday, at his packing house west of Boynton Beach.{ } (WPEC)

With Lake Okeechobee lower than usual over a month into the dry season, representatives of a local drainage district warned Tuesday about the possibility of running out of water come spring.

“It’s a major concern about a potential drought,” said James Alderman, emphasizing the word "potential."

No emergency now, since Lake Okeechobee stands just over 13 feet. But the lake is usually a couple feet higher at this time of year.

Alderman said he’s been growing vegetables in Palm Beach County more than 40 years. He now farms in Martin County as well.

He also sits on the board of the Lake Worth Drainage District, which controls the local canals in most of Central and Southern Palm Beach County.

On Tuesday, Alderman was among a contingent from Lake Worth Drainage, appearing at the Palm Beach County Commission meeting, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a briefing.

Earlier this year, the Corps kept Lake Okeechobee lower than usual, which helped the Corps avoid making harmful releases from the lake to the St. Lucie Estuary.

In years past, such releases fueled economically and environmentally devastating toxic algae blooms.

The lower lake level also allowed vegetation in Lake Okeechobee to rebound from years of high water.

But Alderman said if Lake Okeechobee’s level continues to fall as is expected through the dry season, that could jeopardize his Drainage District’s ability to tap the lake as a backup for water supplies.

Alderman feared impacts to his ability to irrigate crops and utilities’ use of their drinking water wells.

“So we’re setting us up for a man-made drought that could impact the whole area,” said Alderman, speaking with CBS12 News after the meeting at his packing house west of Boynton Beach. “If Lake Worth Drainage District is unable to recharge those wells, then there’s a possibility we have salt water intrusion into those wells. Once you have that, you’ve lost the well forever.”

But the Corps’ Col. Andrew Kelly sought to reassure commissioners.

“What we believe is we will be in a position in the spring, that is above a water shortage concerned area,” he said.

Alderman said he would at least like to hear contingency plans from the Corps.