Florida’s Rainfall Divide: Southeast Coast Flooded, Gulf Coast Faces Drought
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Sunshine State has experienced a stark contrast in rainfall totals this year, with the southeast coast being deluged by sometimes-record rainfall while the Gulf of Mexico coast grapples with a drought. As a result, counties along Florida’s west side have implemented new water use restrictions, particularly in an area where the water table has plummeted to dangerously low levels, putting wells at risk of drying up. Unfortunately, Florida’s wettest season has come to an end until late spring.
What is happening in Florida may soon become a reality in other parts of the country as farmers and residents grapple with changing weather patterns caused by climate change. This includes hotter temperatures during summer, more powerful hurricanes, heavier rainstorms, and unexpected droughts. Dan Durica, a board member at Tampa’s Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, acknowledges the need to adapt to these extremes and the “boom and bust” of climate chaos.
For most people, the water restrictions primarily affect lawn and landscape watering, which accounts for approximately half of the daily water usage in the affected areas. In three counties surrounding Tampa Bay, watering is only permitted one day a week based on a resident’s address and limited to before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.
Mark Elsner, the water supply bureau chief for the South Florida Water Management District, highlights the impact of the rainfall deficit on the western coast of Florida. With a 30% deficit, the region did not receive the expected recharge, resulting in lower groundwater levels as the dry season commences.
The divide in precipitation can be attributed to a weaker-than-typical high-pressure system over the western Atlantic Ocean during the summer. This led to consistently lighter easterly winds, causing most of the precipitation to concentrate over the interior and eastern side of the peninsula, rather than the western half. In mid-November, a storm with wind gusts approaching tropical storm strength inundated Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and nearby areas with nearly a foot of rain over three days. Marathon, located in the Florida Keys, even set an all-time daily rainfall record for November with 6.68 inches in a single day.
Conversely, the Gulf Coast has been grappling with drought for months, leading to water use restrictions in 14 counties. These restrictions encompass various activities such as lawn watering, golf courses, landscaping, and agriculture. Violators can face fines ranging from $100 to $500 depending on the jurisdiction. The Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer, one of Florida’s underground reservoirs, is 15 feet lower this year compared to the past four years, posing a threat to wells in Cape Coral. To mitigate the situation, deeper replacement wells have been drilled in the area.
While farmers employ water conservation practices such as slow-drip irrigation, deep mulching, and nighttime watering to reduce water usage, the west coast of Florida still requires rain to alleviate the water shortage. Fortunately, forecasters predict heavier rainfall during the typically drier winter months due to the weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which occurs when waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean become warmer, impacting global climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts a 55% chance of a strong El Niño this winter, raising hopes that drought conditions will be alleviated along the Florida Gulf coast between December and February.
Florida’s contrasting rainfall patterns serve as a reminder of the challenges posed by climate change and the urgent need for adaptation measures. As the world grapples with these evolving weather patterns, it is crucial for communities to embrace resilience and implement sustainable practices to mitigate the impacts of climate chaos.