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  • Shannon Carnevale

Navigating El Niño: What It Means for Polk County’s Dry Season

As winter unfolds, a special guest, El Niño, is set to influence our weather patterns significantly. Known for altering weather on a global scale, El Niño’s effects have been felt right here in Polk County throughout January. At the time that I’m writing this, we are expecting a strong El Niño to continue for the next several months… at least.


UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones

WHAT IS EL NIÑO?


El Niño and its opposite climatic effect, La Niña, tend to cycle on and off every 6-8 years on average. El Niño is a climate phenomenon characterized by the warming of ocean waters in the central and eastern Pacific. This warming significantly impacts regional weather patterns, often leading to increased rainfall in certain parts of the world, including Central Florida. 


This year, El Niño’s presence is particularly strong, signaling a potentially cooler and wetter “dry season” than we have seen in years and, if it lasts through the spring and summer, a calmer than usual hurricane season. Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is forecasting El Niño to last through April of this year and predicting that it may reach historic strength this cycle. You can learn more about current El Niño and La Niña, here: climate.gov/enso.


IMPACT ON WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEMS


The excess rainfall brought on by El Niño can create a domino effect on local wildlife and ecosystems. In our wetlands and marshes, the additional water can provide a boon for waterfowl, amphibians, and other species that rely on these habitats. However, it’s not all positive news; too much water can disrupt nesting patterns and displace smaller, ground-dwelling creatures if the waters stay high and are followed by an active rainy season.


Consistently wet and rainy weather can also increase microbial action and spur additional fruiting cycles by a variety of fungi. This means you may notice more mushrooms than normal, additional fairy circles, or if you garden, additional mold, and mildew issues. 


LOCAL HYDROLOGICAL EFFECTS


In Polk County, the average rainfall for December and January stands at 2.1 – 2.3 inches, respectively. December was a little higher than average at 2.55 inches at my house, but rainfall in January has already exceeded 3 inches! At the time of writing there is more than a week left in January and the forecast is calling for another front of storms this weekend. 


This increase in precipitation can have various effects on our local hydrology. Our lakes, crucial for recreational activities like boating, are already experiencing higher-than-average water levels. In Lakeland and most of Polk County, these higher lake levels are likely presenting as clearer-than-usual water and higher-than-average shorelines.


In Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes, increased rainfall can more directly influence boating recreation due to higher water levels in the canals that connect the chain. 


In drier years, when rainfall is scant during the rainy season, a wet winter is a welcome sight because without it the canal levels can be so low that it inhibits boat travel. When lake levels are high from a normal or above-normal rainy season, a wet winter helps keep the lakes “topped off” through the dry season.  


CAN THE CHAIN OF LAKES GET “TOO FULL”?


The Chain of Lakes water levels are generally managed by Lake Region Lakes Management District, also known as Canal Commission, locally. There is a “control structure” on south Lake Lulu which operates much like the overflow preventer on your household bathtub. Once the lake levels reach a certain point, it overflows into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal and sends excess water downriver. 


If lake levels are generally high and already flowing into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal at the beginning of hurricane season, then the Southwest Florida Water Management District may ask the Canal Commission to reduce lake levels by allowing additional water over the control structure. 


The goal of this action is to make room in the lakes to accept additional rainfall if the area is expecting the downpours that can come with a tropical storm or hurricane. This preventative move aims to prevent flooding of homes on the Chain and along the Peace River, if those forecasts verify and the area receives a lot of rain in a short time.


EL NIÑO AND CONSERVATION


Rain is a good thing in Polk County, generally speaking. We are a rain-driven system, the top of the watershed. Every drop of water that falls in Polk County is trying to leave and for that reason, it’s good for residents to be tolerant of higher water when we are blessed enough to have it.  


Just because we have high water now, doesn’t mean we always will. We still need to conserve water in times of plenty.


Consider the following suggestions for conservation this season:


  1. Reduce your irrigation schedule or install a rain sensor for your system: Naturally, our lawns and yards use less water and grow slower during winter. With the added rain, you may not need to use your irrigation at all! UF/IFAS research suggests ½ inch every other week of rain or irrigation is all you need in the cooler months.

  2. Enjoy our wetlands and lakes: These havens for wildlife activity are at their best and most beautiful, in my opinion, in winter or early spring of El Niño years. When the cypress trees are bronzed or bare, the insect activity is lower, and the air is crisp. It’s time for a hike at Circle B or a sunset happy hour on the water!

  3. Plant some cool-season greens: Take advantage of the cooler weather and regular rain during an El Niño winter by planting some lettuce, kale, cool season veggies, or cool season cut flowers. Our horticulture team is ready to help you plan your spring garden, which you can plant now. Reach out to our Master Gardener Plant Clinic for garden planning advice at 863-519-1057 or via email at polkmg@ifas.ufl.edu.

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