Lake level hope lies in com­ing dry sea­son

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kim­berly Miller Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

South Florida’s dry sea­son can’t come soon enough for be­lea­guered Lake Okee­chobee, which main­tained its 17.2-foot bloat Thurs­day while wa­ter man­agers de­bated mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ef­forts to drain fu­ture over­flows.

The av­er­age dry sea­son start date falls be­tween Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, but whether Mother Na­ture will fol­low her own cli­ma­tol­ogy this year is ques­tion­able, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing a hearty hur­ri­cane sea­son

that might sim­mer into early Novem­ber.

Al­ready, the rainy sea­son has brought ar­eas from the Kis­sim­mee basin to Key Largo 47 inches of rain through Thurs­day, which is more than 15 inches above nor­mal, ac­cord­ing to the South Florida Wa­ter Man­age­ment District.

Coastal Palm Beach County re­ceived 39 inches of rain since June 2 — nearly 6 inches above nor­mal. Western Palm Beach County, in­clud­ing ar­eas south of Lake Okee­chobee, were up to 45.6 inches, which is about 17 inches above nor­mal.

“We are hop­ing the dry sea­son will come soon,” said Barry Bax­ter, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice in Mi­ami. “But it looks like from what we’re see­ing in the mod­els, it may sput­ter to a start.”

A wet sum­mer fol­lowed by Septem­ber’s Hur­ri­cane Irma left wa­ter man­agers and the Army Corps of En­gi­neers with a dilemma. With wa­ter con­ser­va­tion ar­eas full and fear of flood­ing on the Trea­sure Coast, the tra­di­tional method of low­er­ing Lake Okee­chobee by send­ing wa­ter into the St. Lu­cie and Caloosa­hatchee es­tu­ar­ies has been re­strained.

The Corps, which man­ages Lake Okee­chobee, prefers to keep it be­tween 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. At 17 feet, daily in­spec­tions of the south side of the vul­ner­a­ble Her­bert Hoover Dike are trig­gered. Those be­gan dur­ing the week­end.

“We’re re­leas­ing as much as we can with­out cre­at­ing down­stream flood­ing im­pacts,” said Corps spokesman John Camp­bell. “We rec­og­nize ad­di­tional pre­cip­i­ta­tion could re­sult in the lake re­sum­ing its rise, which is why we con­tinue to re­lease wa­ter so we can re­tain as much stor­age as pos­si­ble.”

Camp­bell said Thurs­day the lake had been sta­ble at 17.2 feet for 72 hours.

To keep Lake Okee­chobee’s fresh wa­ter from foul­ing the brack­ish es­tu­ar­ies in the fu­ture — the dis­charges are harm­ful to es­tu­ary ecol­ogy and can seed dam­ag­ing al­gae blooms — wa­ter man­agers are con­sid­er­ing deep in­jec­tion wells that will pump wa­ter 3,000 feet down into cav­ernous ar­eas called the Boul­der Zone.

There are al­ready 200 sim­i­lar wells statewide that in­ject over­flow wa­ter into the boul­der layer, some of which have been there since the late 1970s, said Robert Ver­ras­tro, lead hy­dro­ge­ol­o­gist for South Florida Wa­ter Man­age­ment District.

“It’s re­ally sim­ple tech­nol­ogy,” said Ver­ras­tro dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion Thurs­day to the district gov­ern­ing board. “The pipe has a di­am­e­ter of 24 inches and would go down 3,000 feet.”

A re­port by Ver­ras­tro and district en­gi­neer Cal Nei­drauer found that 50 wells could have re­duced dis­charges into the es­tu­ar­ies be­tween 41 per­cent and 88 per­cent be­tween 2009 and 2016. Drilling 50 wells that could take in 15 mil­lion gal­lons a day each would cost an es­ti­mated $330 mil­lion.

Board mem­bers gen­er­ally agreed with drilling the wells, re­it­er­at­ing that they would not re­place cur­rent projects and would only in­ject wa­ter that would oth­er­wise go out through the es­tu­ar­ies. No for­mal vote was taken.

More than 70 en­vi­ron­men­tal, con­ser­va­tion and ma­rine-re­lated groups op­pose the wells. In a let­ter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott this week, they said the wells do not fit with the Com­pre­hen­sive Ever­glades Restora­tion Plan.

Ce­leste De Palma, a pol­icy as­so­ciate with Audubon Florida, said there are too many un­knowns with the wells.

“We want to em­pha­size the use of cau­tion here and turn our at­ten­tion to the projects at hand,” De Palma said Thurs­day. “If we re­ally want to push our­selves, let’s get the cur­rent projects mov­ing faster.”

District of­fi­cials are hop­ing that rain from a trop­i­cal wave that is forecast to move past the area to­day won’t add wa­ter to Lake Okee­chobee.

The forecast calls for most of the show­ers to be along the south­east coast. While rain chances stay at 50 per­cent through the week­end, a del­uge is not ex­pected.

“To­ward the end of next week, the mod­els do hint at some dry air fil­ter­ing in from the north,” Bax­ter said. “But we’re stuck with deeper mois­ture through the week­end.”

BRUCE R. BEN­NETT / THE PALM BEACH POST

A wet sum­mer fol­lowed by Hur­ri­cane Irma brought aboveav­er­age rain­fall to­tals across the re­gion.

BRUCE R. BEN­NETT / THE PALM BEACH POST

South Florida Wa­ter Man­age­ment District of­fi­cials hope rain from a trop­i­cal wave forecast to move past the area to­day won’t add wa­ter to Lake O.

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