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Drought affects vast areas of the US -

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Drought affects vast areas of the US

Broadcast: 10/08/2007

Reporter: Michael Rowland

Australia is not the only country currently gripped by drought with vast areas of the United States
stricken by water shortages.

Transcript

TONY JONES: Australia is not the only country currently gripped by drought, with vast areas of the
United States stricken by water shortages.

And with Europe suffering record rain, the extremes are being blamed on global warming.

This week the United States was hit by record temperatures as a heatwave swept the nation,
exacerbating the worsening drought.

The arid west of the US is accustomed to water being in short supply but it's unusual for Florida,
which normally has no shortage of rainfall.

So we sent our North America correspondent Michael Rowland to the drought stricken south.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: America's south-east is in the grip of its worst drought in more than a century.

It's posing a serious threat to water supplies but in some areas you'd never know there was a
problem.

These are the lush green streets of Florida's exclusive Palm Beach.

It's a neighbourhood dripping with wealth and influence.

The homes are immaculate, so too are the well-nourished lawns and gardens that skirt these
multi-million dollar properties.

But while the flow of money here may be endless, the water supply isn't.

Eighty kilometres west of Palm Beach lies Lake Okeechobee.

It's the backup water supply for the five million people living in southern Florida.

But this vital reservoir is fast drying up.

JESUS RODRIGUEZ, SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT: You know we have just not had rainfall over 18 to
20 months at this point in the right areas. Essentially, we have seen far below average right above
the lake and far below average rainfall in the areas to the north of the lake.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The water level here would normally be up to my chest, such is the toll inflicted
by the lack of rainfall. The situation is clearly desperate and the people of Florida are now
grappling with a challenge normally only faced by those living in much more arid parts of the
country. How best to conserve a precious commodity that has previously been taken for granted.

It's a challenge the well-heeled residents in places like Palm Beach aren't exactly rushing to
embrace.

There are water restrictions here, but they're limited in nature and have only been in place for a
few months.

The sprinklers and fountains continue to flow and life for the people on Florida's Gold Coast goes
on as normal.

CYNTHIA BARNETT, AUTHOR: Florida and the entire eastern United States have wasted so much of their
abundant water supply that we don't have enough for our basic functions.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Florida journalist and author Cynthia Barnett has carried out an extensive study
of the State's diminishing water supply.

She says the lack of rainfall is only one of the culprits.

CYNTHIA BARNETT: I argue that you can't blame all of our water supply problems on either drought or
intense population growth. The fact is, we've drained too many wetlands. We've gotten rid of too
much and our water managers have over-permitted the ground water supply.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: In other words too many houses are being built in areas where the water supply is
already under serious pressure.

Those who dole out the water permits say Florida should not be missing out on economic development.

JESUS RODRIGUEZ: It's not fair for us to tell a developer who has met all the criteria that we use
and other water managers across the State use, it's not fair for us to tell them that you can't
build because you are sort of late to the dance.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The residents of this retirement community in central Florida may look harmless
enough but they're among the most voracious water consumers in the state.

Water may be in short supply, but every effort is made to ensure that dozens of golf courses here
stay a nice shade of green.

The managers have just received approval to tap an extra nine million gallons of groundwater a day
from an aquifer that's already seriously depleted.

While water shortages are an inconvenience to urban dwellers, for Florida's farmers they could
spell disaster.

Rick Roth farms about 1,600 hectares of land, mainly sugar crops, near the everglades in the
State's south.

He's already been forced to cut back his water use by nearly half.

And while Mr Roth sowed his current crop before the restrictions came in, he's fretting about the
viability of future harvests.

RICK ROTH, FARMER: The biggest impact is going to be the sugar cane harvest next year because there
was not sufficient water to irrigate and there was not sufficient rainfall. So a lot of the sugar
cane crop this year that will be harvested in the fall is shorter than normal.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: And for this man of the land the water problems facing Florida could very quickly
get much, much worse.

RICK ROTH: Well it's something that's never happened in my knowledge. My family has been farming
here since 1949. We have had droughts about every 10 years. But I dare say come March, April or may
there will be people on the east coast of Florida who will turn on their faucets and nothing will
come out.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: It will be that serious?

RICK ROTH: It will be that serious.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But, for the time being, plenty's coming out, much to the horror of those who fear
the long-term consequences.

Even the temporary water restrictions could prove to be nothing more than a drop in the bucket.

CYNTHIA BARNETT: I think the water restrictions are a very good start but I don't think they'll get
us out of the situation, no more than screwing in a couple of compact fluorescent is going to stop
global warming. It requires I think a pretty radical change of mindset about how we manage water.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The time for radical solutions may be fast approaching.

Michael Rowland, Lateline.