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News Story
Updated: 05/19/2017 08:30:01AM

Highlands declared disaster due to drought

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PHOTO PROVIDED

Severe drought conditions are having big impacts on areas across the state, including the Everglades.

MAP PROVIDED BY PATIRCK MAHONEY, Florida Forest Service
THe main area of the Raintree Fire is outlined in red and is 2,734 acres. The spot fire, 327 acres, is shown in blue, for a total of 3,061 acres. As of Wednesday noon, the fire is 70 percent contained. The large black rectangle is the reservoir for the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply off Kings Highway.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY PATRICK MAHONEY, Florida Forest Service
The Raintree Fire burned land on both sides of Interstate 75, requiring all lanes to be closed for several hours on Saturday and Sunday due to low visibility caused by smoke. As of Wednersday, the fire is 70 percent contained.

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Despite a front that brought minimal amounts of rain over the weekend, the Sunshine State’s record-setting dry season continues to rage on.

In response to a request from Debbie Folsom, Farm Service Agency’s acting State Executive Director in Florida, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated eight counties in Florida as primary natural disaster areas due to losses and damages caused by a recent drought. Those counties are: Highlands, Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Okeechobee, Osceola and Polk.

Farmers and ranchers in the following counties in Florida also qualify for natural disaster assistance because their counties are contiguous. Those counties are: Brevard, Hendry, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Orange, Palm Beach, Pasco, Sarasota, St. Lucie and Sumter.

All counties listed above were designated natural disaster areas on May 10, making all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for FSA’s emergency loans, provided eligibility requirements are met. Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for loans to help cover part of their actual losses.

FSA will consider each loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability. FSA has a variety of programs, in addition to the EM loan program, to help eligible farmers recover from adversity.

Other FSA programs that can provide assistance, but do not require a disaster declaration, include Operating and Farm Ownership Loans; the Emergency Conservation Program; Livestock Forage Disaster Program; Livestock Indemnity Program; Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program; and the Tree Assistance Program. Interested farmers may contact their local USDA service centers for further information on eligibility requirements and application procedures for these and other programs. Additional information is also available online at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov.

The counties with the least rainfall were Brevard, Okeechobee, Orange and Osceola counties, which each received less than one inch during May so far.

Highest rainfalls occurred in Clay, with 3.08 inches, St. Johns, with 3.11 inches, Alachua County with 3.95 inches. Southern Duval and Baker counties also received above-average rainfall, with 2.77 inches and 3.41 inches, respectively.

In April, the City of Orlando received no measurable rainfall, an extremely rare occurrence.

Liz Felter, Orange County UF/IFAS Commercial Horticulture Agent, says the lack of rain, combined with the high temperatures, has made this growing season very challenging. “Farmers are using supplemental irrigatio,” she said. “They are diligently monitoring their irrigation systems to insure they are working properly for maximum efficiency.”

In addition, burn bans continue for all District-owned properties due to the extreme dry conditions. Numerous brush fires are still ablaze across the state.

According to Joe Walter, UF/IFAS Brevard County Extension Agent, this dry season is definitely one for the ages. “It’s the driest I’ve ever seen it; even worse than 1998, and that was the bad one.”

Walter estimated the water table in his area to be running about eight feet below normal. “It’s not a good place to be right now.”

The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s (District) Governing Board declared a Phase I Water Shortage for all 16 counties throughout the District’s boundaries back in April. Included in the order is Highlands County.

The primary purpose for a Phase I water shortage is to alert the public that watering restrictions could be forthcoming. The order also requires local utilities to review and implement procedures for enforcing year-round water conservation measures and water shortage restrictions, including reporting enforcement activity to the District.

Phase I water shortage order does not change allowable watering schedules, however it does prohibit “wasteful and unnecessary” water use.


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