MIAMI -- In the Everglades, it's all about the water.
The fragile ecosystem hasn't seen much rain during this unseasonably dry season and by the time summer arrives, sea grass could be dying and the rich peat soil that supports life could be collapsing.
"One of the meteorologists at the district characterized the month of March as showing 'exceptional, long-lived, unprecedented dryness,'" said John Mitnik, chief engineer at the District South Florida Water Management District. "Basically it didn't rain and it was very dry," as he pointed to a graph during a video conference meeting in which district board members were warned about potentially dire consequences of the "big red deficit of rainfall" last month.
South Florida may have seen some thunderstorms over Easter weekend but the rain hardly dented the scorching trend that has dried off canals and led water managers to impose strict irrigation restrictions April 10. The region is heading into dangerous weather territory as the first three months of the year were the hottest on record, creating conditions for soil collapse in the Everglades and sea grass die-offs in Florida Bay.
March was the hottest month on record for Florida, with an average of just 0.24 inches of rain -- the driest in 89 years, according to the Water Management District.
The deepening drought has lowered Lake Okeechobee to worrisome levels, while many groundwater wells are drying up. The lake irrigates farms and fills up canals that help prevent saltwater intrusion across South Florida. It also serves as a backup water source for many cities during times of drought.
The situation was so extreme last month -- with water conservation areas falling below safe levels -- that water managers last Friday stepped up water restrictions, ordering residents to cut landscape irrigation to just twice a week, between 7 p.m. and 7a.m. with no more than an inch of water applied to lawns each week.
While water is being allocated for agricultural use, there is hardly any freshwater flowing south into Everglades National Park, as a recent presentation at the district's monthly board meeting showed.
Big Cypress National Preserve was among the areas with the biggest rainfall deficit, Mitnik said.
The water that's flowing south for water supply maintenance in southern Miami-Dade County isn't enough to make it to Taylor Slough, a key conduit that takes freshwater south to Florida Bay. A large portion of Taylor Slough, which stretches from the east Everglades to the northern part of Florida Bay, is located inside the park, and is visible from the Anhinga Trail boardwalk near the Royal Palm visitor center.