Florida - Lake Okeechobee water levels tied their all-time low today as dry, windy conditions caused a high evaporation rate at the drought-stricken lake.

The current drought, coupled with decisions to lower the lake last year in anticipation of hurricanes that didn't materialize, left the lake at 8.97 feet on Wednesday. That was about 4 feet below normal and equal to the record low of 8.97 feet set during the drought of 2001.

"As the primary back-up water supply for most South Florida residents, the lake is so low this year that its waters cannot be used to replenish the regional supply," the South Florida Water Management District said.

The district also imposed Phase II water restrictions on primarily agricultural, industrial and commercial water users in parts of Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee, Lee, Martin, St. Lucie and western Palm Beach counties.

The restrictions also apply to people whose water source is Lake Okeechobee or any of the canals recharged by the lake. That includes utility customers in South Bay, Belle Glade, Pahokee, Okeechobee and Clewiston.

Farmers are required to reduce surface water consumption by 45 percent. Residential users must limit lawn watering, boat and car washing to one day per week: Saturdays from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for odd numbered addresses; Sundays from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for even-numbered addresses.

A brushfire burning 4,000 acres of normally submerged lakebed near the northwestern shore was just one of the consequences.

Emergency pumps have been required to keep about half of the usual water flowing to canals that help restock South Florida's strained water supplies. Pumping at four coastal well fields in Broward and Palm Beach counties has already stopped or been reduced to prevent contamination from saltwater.

And as the lake continues to drop, sugar cane, vegetable and other growers are struggling to get the lake water they need for irrigation.

"It is nature telling us that we need to be more focused on where the water comes from," said Eric Buermann, the new chairman of the South Florida Water Management District. "We need to modify our behavior ... seek out alternative sources and conserve."

The summer rainy season is under way in some coastal areas of South Florida, but the daily drenchings needed to stop Lake Okeechobee's drop have yet to start in the interior of the state, according to the National Weather Service.

If the lake drops below 7 feet, the temporary pumps would no longer be able to send water south. Lakeside communities such as Belle Glade and South Bay that draw drinking water directly from the lake would face added threats to their supplies.

"That's almost like a science fiction scenario, or I sure hope so," said Susan Gray, the district's Lake Okeechobee program director.

Some relief could come this weekend. Forecasts call for a 50 percent chance of rain on Saturday and a 40 percent chance of rain on Sunday for Palm Beach County and Lake Okeechobee, said Robert Molleda, meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Miami.

The earthen dike along the lake's northwestern shore near Buckhead Ridge, usually relied on to protect residents from flooding, on Tuesday became the dividing line fire officials needed to keep flames from jumping into a nearby neighborhood.

"It isn't really bad for the lake. It's just something you don't want to get out of control," said Jim Harrell, spokesman for the Florida Division of Forestry.

People who rely on lake water to make their living are already suffering from low water levels.

Agricultural representatives say the lack of rain and reduced amount of lake water to supplement irrigation canals threaten to bring worse economic hardships than the 2001 drought, when the crop loss was estimated at more than $100 million.

"Each day that goes by, we are just that much drier and that much further behind," said Charles Shinn, who monitors water conditions for the Florida Farm Bureau. "It's a serious concern and it continues to be."

Fishing guides, bait shops and mom-and-pop motels have suffered since retreating lake levels made it hard even to launch a bass boat in some spots.

Seasonal residents are staying away, and the usual summertime fishermen who used to come for a day on the lake are going elsewhere, longtime lake fisherman Jack Weldon said.

Weldon says decisions to dump lake water last year worsened the drought's effect on his fishing grounds.

"Where the fish used to feed and eat, it's not there no more," Weldon said. "A lot of people ain't coming back. ... It's a sad situation."

The water level that officials use to monitor the lake is a daily computation that comes from averaging the readings of four gauges inside the lake and comparing them with a mean sea level standard set in 1929.

The actual depth of the lake can vary from more than 20 feet in the middle to a few feet near the shoreline.

Lowering the lake can have environmental benefits, but not when water dips this low, said Paul Grey, a scientist for Audubon of Florida.

Keeping water levels too high can drown the natural grasses needed for fish to spawn and birds to eat, but now it has dropped to the point that the marsh areas are drying up, Grey said.

The long-term solution is to build more reservoirs and water treatment areas north of the lake to compensate for drainage systems built to funnel stormwater into the lake and out to sea, he said.

"When they built the system ... they were trying to drain the state, and it worked," Grey said.

South Florida relies on the lake and the Everglades for its backup water supply, but both sources are struggling amid a 17-inch rainfall deficit since November 2005.

Water restrictions are expected to remain even after the summer rains start and could continue into next year if the storm season fails to provide above-normal rainfall, said Gray, of the water management district.

The drought of 2001 ended after heavier-than-normal summer rains pumped the lake back up to normal levels by October.

"This drought is much more widespread. It's going to take quite a bit of rainfall to get us back up," Gray said.

Long-term water relief comes from requiring growing communities to develop alternative sources, such as using treated wastewater for irrigation and tapping deeper, more plentiful underground water sources, said Buermann, the head of the water district's governing board.

"We have to look across the board at what we are doing," Buermann said. "We can't just build, build, build and assume the water will be there."