Water managers may be the only ones rooting for a tropical storm to hit South Florida this year.
Summer rains are raising drought-strained water levels throughout the region, but have failed to boost Lake Okeechobee back to normal levels.
Lake Okeechobee provides South Florida’s primary backup water supply, as well as vital wildlife habitat.
The lake remains more than three feet below normal, despite average or above average rainfall since July.
Now a lingering, soaking tropical storm may be the only way to get Lake Okeechobee back to normal before the start of the usual winter to spring dry season, South Florida Water Management District officials said Thursday.
Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 helped provide water supply relief after similar drought conditions.
Fay’s record-setting, six-day slog across Florida during August 2008 gave Lake Okeechobee a two-foot boost, which was its biggest one-week increase on record.
"We kind of need some tropical activity," said Tommy Strowd, the district’s director of operations. "We are going to need some help."
Lake Okeechobee on Friday was about 10.82 feet above sea level and had only gone up about half a foot during the past month.
The lowest the lake got this year was 9.53 feet in July, which stopped water managers from using the lake to replenish drinking water supplies or send water to the Everglades. It also reduced the water available to irrigate sugar cane fields and other agriculture south of the lake.
Low water levels dried out wildlife habitat in the marshes rimming Lake Okeechobee, which was a particular threat to the endangered Everglades snail kite.
Lake Okeechobee’s water level problems are largely man-made.
The Army Corps of Engineers lowered the lake last year due to flood control concerns, which worsened the effects of a record-setting dry spell that stretched from October to June.
Safety concerns about the dike the protects lakeside communities from flooding have the corps keeping the lake about a foot lower than normal year round while construction continues to strengthen the earthen structure.
During 2010, the corps released more than 300 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water into rivers that drain out to sea.
The Army Corps of Engineers makes the final decision on when to release Lake Okeechobee water, with input from the South Florida Water Management District.
District officials say that even with the steady summer rains, there hasn’t yet been enough water flowing in from the Kissimmee River and its chain of lakes to boost Lake Okeechobee back to normal.
But with other water supplies recovering while Lake Okeechobee still suffers, it raises questions about lake management practices, district Board Member Glenn Waldman said.
"That seems to lead to the conclusion that somebody is doing something they shouldn’t be doing," Waldman said.