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With little rain, wetlands brownish but plenty of water on tap

The tall strands take on an orange hue in the afternoon light. The hiking trails at Grassy Waters Preserve have turned more sandy than solid in spots and bicyclists strain as tires dig into the soft ground.

A combination of low moisture levels in soil and plants and high temperatures and winds led Palm Beach County on Thursday to institute a ban on open burning until further notice. The countywide ban prohibits all outdoor burning not specifically permitted by the Florida Forest Services, Capt. Albert Borroto of Palm Beach County Fire Rescue said.

Barbecues are allowed but bonfires, campfires and burning yard debris is not, including for residential and commercial land-clearing, Barroto said.

“Palm Beach County is rapidly approaching a critical state where increased wildfire intensity is likely,” he added.

But despite an unusually dry season, West Palm Beach officials say the 23-square-mile Grassy Waters wetland is just half a foot below its maximum level and that, thanks partly to measures taken after droughts past, the city water supply is secure.

The preserve, an Everglades remnant on the western reaches of the city, is engineered like a bathtub, with the city and South Florida Water Management District controlling inflows and outflows to mitigate weather extremes and protect not just drinking water for West Palm, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, but habitats for nesting snail kites, alligators and other wildlife that populate Grassy Waters.

Nonetheless, Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly said Wednesday, West Palm plans to restart a program to remind residents and businesses about water restrictions in effect since the drought of 2011.

“We’re going to start ramping up to provide education and potential enforcement,” he said.

As of April 19, rainfall was 7.83 inches below normal for the year in West Palm Beach, according to Meteorologist Chuck Caracozza of the National Weather Service.

At Grassy Waters, the maximum water level is considered 19.2 feet above sea level. Any higher and it would gnaw at Northlake Boulevard’s roadbed. It’s at 18.6 feet, “so we’re in good shape right now,” Kelly said.

West Palm to press on against State Road 7 near Grassy Waters.

After the drought of 2011, the driest season in 80 years, West Palm Beach took several steps to shore up its drinking water supply. It arranged for alternate sources of water, in the event Lake Okeechobee levels drop or are cut off, such as the C-17 canal as well as an eastern and western wellfield, and it retooled its reservoirs to be able to draw from deeper down.

The city also enacted permanent water restrictions, limiting grass-watering to three days a week. If water levels keep dropping that could be further restricted to two days a week, Kelly said.

As far as enforcing those restrictions, West Palm doesn’t plan to go out and immediately write citations, he said. The city will start with education and warnings.

For now, no need for concern about the city’s water supply, Kelly said. “We feel comfortable that we’re doing everything we’re supposed to.”

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