Lake Okeechobee water levels could stay below normal, despite summer rains

Even with the return of steady summer rains, Lake Okeechobee faces a 75 percent chance of remaining at water shortage levels when the rainy season ends, according to new projections from the South Florida Water Management District.

South Florida endured its driest October-to-June stretch in about 80 years, which dropped Lake Okeechobee to its lowest level since 2008.

Lake Okeechobee is South Florida’s primary backup water supply and provides vital wildlife habitat.

The lake this year receded below 10 feet above sea level and that limited the ability to use lake water to boost South Florida’s drought-strained supplies. It also dried out marshes rimming the lake that provide habitat for wildlife, such as the endangered Everglades snail kite.

July rainfall returned to normal levels and August is on track for the usual drenching, but Lake Okeechobee at 10.32 feet remains more than three feet below normal.

"We still have a long way to go with Lake Okeechobee," said Terrie Bates, district director of water resources.

In addition, many of the underground water supplies tapped by most of South Florida for drinking water have yet to return to normal levels.

Likewise, water levels in much of the Everglades water conservation areas that stretch across western Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties remain below the typical upper range for this time of year.

District officials maintain that it will take above normal rainfall for the rest of the summer to make up for the drought’s strain on water supplies.

Without that, Lake Okeechobee water levels will likely go into the next winter-to-spring dry season already in the water shortage range, according to the district.

"We only have about 3 1/2 months to catch up," said Tommy Strowd, the district’s director of operations.

Aside from the drought, dumping stormwater for flood control worsens the strain on South Florida water supplies.

Before the drought, the Army Corps of Engineers during 2010 drained more than 300 billion of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water out to sea to ease the strain on the dike that protects lakeside communities from flooding.

Also, drainage canals south of the lake typically dump 1.7 billion gallons of water out to sea each day after a summer rainstorm to protect neighborhoods in crowded South Florida from flooding.

Lack of reservoirs and other water storage facilities combined with people living and farming in what used to be the Everglades results in stormwater that could be used to boost local supplies getting drained out to sea for flood control.

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