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Palm Beach Post: Palm Beach County enters first phase of drought

Friday, November 08, 2013

Just 27 days into the seven-month long dry season, weather and water experts said Thursday the metro areas of South Florida have already fallen into the first phase of a drought.

Areas to the north including Martin and St. Lucie counties had been in the first phase, or D0 as it is referred to on the U.S. Drought Monitor, for the past week.

While South Florida was in a D0 drought in January, the last time South Florida was in the first phase of the drought so early in the dry season was November 2010. The 2010-11 dry season was also the first time South Florida saw a D4 level drought, the highest drought level, which means “exceptionally dry” conditions.

“Is that a trend of what we could see? We don’t know,” Barry Baxter, a drought expert with the National Weather Service in Miami, said Thursday. “We just have to monitor it.”

This year’s dry season, which started early on Oct. 11 and usually ends in May, comes with neither El Nino or La Nina conditions; El Nino meaning cool and wet winters and La Nina meaning drier winters. But some models are showing the next few months to be drier than normal. The summer months provided enough rain for South Florida in the short term which is keeping the drought level down for now, Baxter said.

“The main tank of gas is running low but your reservoir tank is really good,” Baxter explained.

What to do now? Authorities say it is time to begin conserving water.

“Short term dryness… could turn into long term if we don’t get the rainfall that we need,” Baxter warned.

Since Oct. 1, Palm Beach International Airport has recorded 1.14 inches of rainfall compared to the 6.16 normal amount. Lake Okeechobee was above one foot above normal in the beginning of October and now, mostly because of evaporation the lake, is just .03 above normal.

Still, the lake is about one foot higher this year than it was this time last year, said Randy Smith, South Florida Water Management District spokesman.

“Water conservation is going to be very important,” he said.

It’s too early to talk about water restrictions and those are assigned on a case-by-case basis, he added.

In addition to the lake level and lack of rain, the fire danger index has been about 500 out of 800, which is on the higher side.

The high index caused Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews to implement their dry brush response, which means instead of just one truck, a fire engine and a brush truck are dispatched to all brush fires.

“Everything has been drier than anticipated,” Capt. Albert Borroto, fire rescue spokesman said. “It’s not at a critical level but it’s enough to institute our dry brush response.”

Baxter said part of the reason we’re in the first phase of the drought is because of a lack of a real rain event in the past 90 days. Forecasters say this weekend may bring some rain in areas of Palm Beach County. There’s a 30 percent chance of showers Saturday and a 40 percent chance Sunday.

But it may not be enough.

“Even with these showers we’re going to see they’re not going to accumulate,” Baxter said. “We could be worse than what we are but it was a very wet first half of the summer. That’s helping us right now.”

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