SEBRING — We have enough water to last at least until 2035.
That’s according to the 2014 Lower Kissimmee Basin Water Supply Plan, a document produced by South Florida Water Management District.
Eighty percent of our underground and lake water is used by agriculture, said Cynthia Gefvert, SFWMD’s section leader for water supply planning.
And agriculture is using less water in the 21st century because of citrus greening and canker, she said.
“Highlands, Glades and Okeechobee counties steadily increased citrus production acreage from the late 1960s to 2000,” the report said. “After 2000, however, citrus production in these counties leveled off or decreased slightly.”
In the Lower Kissimmee Basin planning area, which includes all but the most urban areas of Highlands County along U.S. 27, “total irrigated active citrus acreage is expected to decrease from approximately 35,000 acres in 2010 to just over 26,000 acres in 2035,” the report said. “Citrus greening and canker have affected groves throughout the area.”
However, the report noted, “the lands are not remaining fallow, but are being converted to other crops.”
The bad news is that those alternative crops use even more water than oranges and grapefruit. For instance, one Highlands County permit has been modified to convert 9,800 citrus acres to sorghum, which is expected to be used for biofuels. Strawberry growers have expanded their acreages, and greenhouses and nurseries have increased their plantings.
“Overall, total agricultural acres are expected to increase by 9,483 acres by 2035, and total agriculture water demand is projected to increase by 22.5 million gallons per day, or 13.8 percent,” the report said.
The report explains how Highlands County lakes, streams and canals connect to the Atlantic Ocean: Josephine Creek and Arbuckle Creek drain from the west and north into Lake Istokpoga. Four canals, C-39A, C-41A, C-40 (Indian Prairie Canal), and C-41 (Harney Pond Canal), connect Lake Istokpoga to Lake Okeechobee. Istokpoga Canal also connects to the Kissimmee River through S-67.
Fisheating Creek Basin, which originates in western Highlands County, flows south through Cypress Swamp into Glades County. Istokpoga and Fisheating Creek are in the Lower Kissimmee River Basin, which drains into Lake Okeechobee.
“Lake Istokpoga and Lake Okeechobee are significant sources for water users in Okeechobee, Glades, and Highlands counties,” the report said. More than 28,000 acres have water use permits. “Historically, these lakes have met the agricultural demands of the Indian Prairie Basin, which is located between the lakes.
Lake Istokpoga is one of Florida’s shallowest lakes, averaging four to six feet deep, but its 27,692 acres make it the fifth largest lake in Florida.
Some lakes are connected to underground aquifers.
“Several lakes along the Lake Wales Ridge in Highlands County, such as Lake Placid, June in Winter and Jackson, “may have enhanced connections to the underlying aquifer systems. Due to these connections, there is the potential that increasing water supply withdrawals from the Upper Floridan aquifer could affect water levels in the lakes.”
The northwest corner of Highlands County lies in Southwest Water Management District, which determined that several lakes along the Lake Wales Ridge are showing signs of stress.”
“Their levels went fairly low,” said Mike McMillian, a natural resources specialist for Highlands County.
However, in 2000, SWFWMD developed lake level protection criteria and a recovery strategy for these lakes to address concerns over declining lake levels. The SWFWMD’s Governing Board adopted MFLs — a point at which withdrawals will harm the water resources or the plant and animal ecology of a lake — for lakes Angelo, Anoka, Denton, Jackson, Little Lake Jackson, June in Winter, Letta, Lotela, Placid, Tulane, and Verona in 2015.
Re-evaluation of the minimum flow levels is planned for 2016 for lakes Damon, Pioneer, Pythias, and Viola.
“Currently, Angelo, Anoka, Denton, Letta, Lotela, Tulane, and Verona are considered to be in recovery,” the report said.
In fact, McMillian said, one Lotela resident was concerned the water level was approaching his seawall, and was worried what would happen if a hurricane dumped even more water on the lake. Lake Manager Clell Ford investigated to make certain that there are no obstructions to the overflow, McMillian said.
Contrary to popular belief, upper aquifer water is better than what’s below, the report said. “Most of the water comes from the Upper Floridan aquifer because it is less mineralized than water from deeper portions of the aquifer. Concentrations of chlorides and sulfates, as well as water hardness, may require advanced treatment prior to use.”
The Upper Floridan Aquifer averages 1,000 feet at its thickest point in Glades and Okeechobee counties.
“The Lower Floridan aquifer generally contains brackish to saline water throughout much of the Lower Kissimmee Basin,” the report said. “However, fresh water has been found in the northwestern portion of Highlands County close to the Lake Wales Ridge. Water derived from the brackish portions of the LFA might be useful for blending with other freshwater sources.”
Total water demands within the LKB Planning Area are projected to rise by 30 million gallons a day by 2035, but Gefvert said the region has enough groundwater and surface water to meet the challenge, even though the population along the Gulf and the Atlantic Coasts are expected to climb.