Lake Okeechobee water levels are getting a big boost from recent heavy rains, which could help but not solve South Florida’s water supply strain.
The lake, South Florida’s primary backup water supply, is expected to rise as much as two feet due to water draining in from storms in Central Florida.
Just a few weeks after wildfires burned across Lake Okeechobee’s exposed lake bed, a weekend of record-setting rain produced water flows that have the lake on the rise.
"The good news is all of this water is making its way to Lake Okeechobee," said Tommy Strowd, the district's director of operations. "We expect to see water levels continue to rise."
Oct. 8 turned into the wettest day in nearly 100 years for areas near the Kissimmee River, which drains into Lake Okeechobee. Rainfall averaged about 6 inches across 3,000 square miles, with some areas getting as much as 14 inches.
The volume of water flowing in the Kissimmee River is about six times greater in some areas than it was before the weekend storms.
That increases the amount of water in Lake Okeechobee available for regional needs.
Also, water is reclaiming more of the dried out marshes rimming the lake that were recently burning. Those marshes are vital to fish, wading birds and other wildlife.
"We have had quite a dramatic change," said Linda Lindstrom, of the water management district. "The lake levels have been creeping up slowly."
The problem is that the lake remains nearly 4 feet below normal, which this influx of water may not fix.
On Thursday the lake was 11.49 feet above sea level – more than 2 feet lower than this time last year.
Lake Okeechobee’s water level drop came amid the driest October-to-June stretch on record and the effects of that drought were worsened by past water management decisions.
During 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers drained more than 300 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water out to sea due to flood control concerns. The Army Corps releases water to ease the strain on the lake’s 70-year-old dike, where work is underway on a decades-long rehab to strengthen the earthen structure that guards against flooding.
Also, the South Florida Water Management District and the corps remain behind schedule on plans to build reservoirs intended to store stormwater for future needs.
South Florida drainage canals dump about 1.7 billion gallons of water out to sea each day after a summer rainstorm to avoid flooding towns and farms built on former wetlands.
While Lake Okeechobee levels are on the rise, Florida’s winter to spring dry season is fast approaching.
Long-term forecasts for a return of La Nina atmospheric could mean a drier than normal dry season and an extended drought, according to the district.
The water now flowing into Lake Okeechobee was “an answer to our prayers,” but the lake will still likely be too low headed into the dry season, according to Jane Graham of Audubon of Florida.
The water management district should turn to tougher watering restrictions soon to help stretch water supplies, Graham said.
"Water conservation is key," she said.
The South Florida Water Management District board in November will discuss possible policy changes to address projections for dry conditions to come, Executive Director Melissa Meeker said.
That could include changes in watering restrictions as well as how to divvy up Lake Okeechobee water.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun