Lake Okeechobee

A young heron wades in drought-strained Lake Okeechobee. July rains have boosted lake levels back to 10 feet above sea level. (By Andy Reid)

Lake Okeechobee’s water level crept back to 10 feet above sea level on Thursday, offering another sign of South Florida’s improved water supply situation thanks to a July drenching.

After the driest October-to-June stretch on record, July rainfall has been 125 percent of average. That helped boost the lake that provides South Florida’s primary back-up water supply.

Lake Okeechobee in June dipped below 10 feet for the first time since 2008. The lake’s decline got down to 9.53 feet on June 24 before the late-starting summer rainy season brought relief.

With lake levels back on the rise, the South Florida Water Management District plans to remove the pumps that last month kept lake water flowing to canals tapped for irrigation by sugar cane growers and other agricultural operations south of the lake.

While steady rains have helped boost water supplies from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, drought-triggered watering restrictions remain in place for South Florida.

Lake Okeechobee remains more than 3 feet below normal. Without continued above-normal rainfall this summer, the lake could stay below normal heading into the next winter-to-spring dry season.

"We aren’t out of the woods yet," said Kimberley Taplin, of the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates lake levels. "We hope to get … some heavy rain and tropical storms that can help replenish the lake."

Manmade manipulations contributed to the drought’s strain on Lake Okeechobee.

Concerns about the stability of the lake’s aging dike prompted the Army Corps of Engineers last year to release more than 300 billion gallons of lake water out to sea in the name of flood control.

Environmental groups contend that the South Florida Water Management District should have imposed more stringent irrigation limits sooner on farms and homes to help stretch water supplies during the drought.

Low lake levels dried out normally submerged aquatic grasses that are important to water quality and wildlife habitat. The lake’s decline also dried out marshes that serve as the feeding grounds for the endangered Everglades snail kite.

More conservation could have resulted in taking less water out of the lake for water supply needs, according to environmental groups such as Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club.

"We don’t feel that the conservation efforts were strong enough," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club.