The first signs that South Florida’s dry spell has turned more serious appeared Thursday with a spreading puddle of brown on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly report.
A pinch of land in southwest Palm Beach County stretching through Broward and Miami-Dade, was tagged for being in “moderate drought,” up from the abnormally dry conditions spotted earlier this month.
Brief showers from Monday’s quick-moving cold front did little to ease a lack of rainfall that has affected areas from the Kissimmee Basin north of Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys.
And while a change in weather will come with a 35-degree temperature swing from Thursday’s low of 45 degrees to Sunday’s high of 80, there’s almost no chance of rain until at least the middle of next week, according to the National Weather Service.
“I think it’s something we watch carefully at this point,” said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. “Any time of year, but especially now, it’s important to remember conservation efforts.”
In the district’s 16-county region, the average dry-season rainfall has been about 5 inches, that’s a deficit of 4.4 inches or half of what’s normal for November through mid-March.
Coastal Palm Beach County has received 9 inches of rain this dry season, about 68 percent of normal, while areas near Lake Okeechobee are just 50 percent of normal for rainfall.
“We have more dry season to go, and 100 percent of the system is rainfall driven, that’s the only way we replenish it,” Smith said.
The dry season typically lasts into mid-to-late May.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, 17 percent of Florida is suffering moderate drought — the second tier on a 5-level scale. That’s up from 9 percent the previous week.
About 42 percent of the state is considered below drought level, but abnormally dry, including most of Palm Beach County.
Robert Molleda, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami, said a cold front forecast to sweep through the state Tuesday may bring some rain. But even then, the chances are low.
The long-term forecast is similarly parched. The Climate Prediction Center has Florida with a 60 percent chance of above normal temperatures through May, and up to a 50 percent chance of below normal rainfall.
“We’re not as dry as we were at this point last year, but we’re still pretty early in what we consider the peak of the wildfire season,” Molleda said. “March, April and May is when we are most concerned about wildfires.”
On Thursday, about 50 wildfires burned statewide, with none in Palm Beach County and only two on the Treasure Coast.
Still, Palm Beach County was listed at a “very high” level on the Florida Forest Service’s Fire Danger Index. Martin County was listed at the highest level of “extreme.”
While the drier-than-normal conditions may mean brown lawns, it is good news for Lake Okeechobee. The lake, which was 14.41 feet above sea level Thursday, had enough area exposed by lower water levels to allow for mats of dead vegetation to be burned off.
The decomposing vegetation settles to the bottom of the lake. It steals oxygen from the water, makes it harder for ducks to find food, and obscures sandy spawning areas for fish. The burns are typically conducted by teams from the South Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Corps and Florida Forest Service.
“It’s a big deal that they returned to burning,” said Audubon Florida scientist and Lake Okeechobee expert Paul Gray. “People think about controlled burns for upland areas, but our wetlands can benefit from them also.”