Drought escalates as county gets 15% of normal rainfall in March

Drought conditions deepened from the Keys to the Martin County line last month, browning lawns and raising wildfire concerns as an abnormally-parched dry season continued.

Most of Palm Beach County received a half-inch of rain or less in March, allowing moderate drought to spread countywide and giving more severe drought a foothold in the southwest corner of the county.

According to a Thursday report from the National Drought Mitigation Center, 92 percent of Palm Beach County is experiencing the first level of drought on a four-tier scale, with 4 percent on the second level.

“Welcome to the dry season,” said John Mitnik, chief engineer for the South Florida Water Management District. “Lake Okeechobee has come down a foot within the last month.”

RELATED: Why it’s so crucial to burn Lake Okeechobee when the water level drops.

On Friday, Lake Okeechobee was at 13.69 feet above sea level, which is within the comfort range of the Army Corps of Engineers, but down from its 17.2-foot bloat in October.

Mitnik said the March rainfall tally in eastern Palm Beach County was just 15 percent of normal, leaving a deficit of 3 inches for the month. In the 16-county region overseen by the water district, rainfall was 26 percent of normal, leaving a 2-inch deficit.

“Keep your eyes on your lawn,” said Palm Beach County horticulture agent Deborah Levulis. “If you are failing to adequately water, it could be attractive to chinch bugs, and they can blow through a lawn pretty quickly.”

Levulis said lawns should receive 3/4-inch of water during each watering cycle. Less water can leave the roots to grow too close to the surface, when it’s better for them to dig deeper, she said. To measure how long it takes to reach ¾ inch, Levulis suggested putting cans out during irrigation to collect the water for measurement.

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Year-round water restrictions that have been in place in Palm Beach County since 2010 allow for watering three days per week before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. Some cities may also have their own watering rules.

“Twice a week is really OK for watering,” Levulis said. “The plants will tell you when they need water.”

She said to look for drooping or yellow leaves for signs that a plant is drying out. Grass may need watering if it doesn’t bounce back after stepping on it.

About 26 percent of the state is in moderate to severe drought, with an additional 40 percent considered “abnormally dry.”

Although several cold fronts hit South Florida in March, they didn’t carry much rain. Instead, the fronts, and accompanying thunderstorms, led to lighting strike-initiated wildfires on the Treasure Coast, and in Collier, Hendry and Miami-Dade counties.

Since Jan. 1, about 1,140 wildfires have burned 68,653 acres in Florida, according to the Florida Forest Service. Twenty-five fires were burning Friday.

RELATED: There’s good and bad news in the 2018 hurricane forecast.

South Florida’s warm and dry conditions are in contrast to the beating the Northeast endured over the past month with multiple winter storms. Washington D.C. forecasters are expecting a mix of rain and snow Saturday with an overnight low of 29 degrees.

Snow is forecast in Boston Monday night into Tuesday, while Richmond, Virginia, may get snow Saturday with an overnight low of 30 degrees.

Cool fronts are forecast to push through Florida on Sunday and Tuesday, increasing chances of rain to 40 percent Sunday and 50 percent Tuesday.

“We turn the faucet on in just over a month, so enjoy the dry weather while it lasts,” said National Weather Service meteorologist James Thomas, noting the typical mid-May start of the rainy season. “We just have to get through this month and we’ll see an uptick in moisture and daily shower activity.”

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