WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —A severe drought across vast swaths of Florida is wilting crops, sparking wildfires and sinking one of the country's largest lakes to historically low levels.
The majority of the state is experiencing the drought, prompted by La Nina conditions characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures that are causing similar dry spells across the southern U.S., from New Mexico all the way to the Atlantic coast and north to Delaware.
"This one seems to be a different beast," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "I think we're going to see things probably get worse before we see improvement."
Even as Florida starts its rainy season — which in its first week has been bone dry — showers can only do so much to reverse months of below-normal precipitation. A best-case scenario this summer might only lift the hardest-hit areas from the highest drought rating to one still rated severe.
The South Florida Water Management District, a 16-county area of central and South Florida with 7.7 million residents, recorded rainfall between Oct. 2 and Monday of just under 12.5 inches, nearly 11 inches below average. The period from October through February ranked as the driest such time frame in the district in 80 years.
That's drying out Lake Okeechobee, the backup reservoir for 5 million people, which stood at just 9.81 feet Wednesday, 3.32 feet below normal and approaching its all-time low of 8.82 feet set in July 2007. That drought ended in August 2008 when Tropical Storm Fay lingered over the state for almost a week, dropping 30 inches of rain in some spots.
Susan Sylvester, the water district's director of operations control, said the current problems are compounded by increased evaporation.
"Every root in every plant is trying to pull out some moisture," she said.
When the lake's levels are too low, it stops the natural gravity flow of its waters into canals that lead to water sources for millions of residents, in turn prompting irrigation restrictions. It also cuts flow to the ecologically fragile Everglades, causing navigation issues for boaters with ramps dried out and drying marsh areas on the lake's banks where wading birds forage for fish.
Rick Roth, a Belle Glade farmer, recently harvested radishes, green beans and lettuce. Radish yields were down about 5 percent, he said; green bean production was on par, but with the added expense of irrigation. And many heads of lettuce never reached full size.
"We're going to be in worse shape next year than we are this year," he said, "and this year we purely got by by the skin of our teeth."