Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson says consumers will see food prices increase and the state faces serious economic consequences if the prolonged drought in southeast Florida continues.

Total statewide economic losses have already topped an estimated $100 million this year, and are expected to surpass $1 billion over the next two years if the current situation is not altered.

“Some agricultural industries like cattle, citrus and sugar won’t feel the worst of their financial pains until 2008 and 2009,” Bronson said.

While the normal summer rains have eased the severity of urban water shortages throughout the state, many Floridians are unaware that agricultural producers around Lake Okeechobee are facing ongoing water shortages and storage dilemmas that will continue well into next year and beyond.

In addition to providing a backup drinking water supply for the densely populated communities of south Florida and a critical supplemental water supply for the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee stores irrigation water for some 700,000 acres of agriculture - considered by some as the most productive farm land in the world.

“Agriculture around the lake is facing a dire situation,” Bronson said. “If there’s any hope of avoiding a financial meltdown, it’s absolutely essential that the state, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers do everything possible to increase water levels in Lake Okeechobee.”

Even with the increasing rainfall in recent weeks, Bronson believes state agencies must find a way to put more storage water back into the lake. Florida’s “dry season” starts in November, and most agricultural producers do not feel there is sufficient water to get them through the critical period until next spring.

And without ample water, the state’s valuable winter vegetable production, citrus crop and sugar production are in peril, Bronson said.

Many south Florida farmers have been under water restrictions since November of 2006 and some are now questioning the viability of even planting a fall crop.

“This is a tough situation,” Bronson said. “Think about it; would you invest hundreds-of-thousands of dollars planting crops with the prospects of having an insufficient water supply to keep them alive?”

Bronson stressed that agriculture losses will no doubt also show up in lost tax revenues, unemployment and higher food prices.

“It’s not just about farm profitability. It affects everyone who eats and relies on the economy,” he said.