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Wettest Wet Season Still Affecting South Florida
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still coping with high water levels in south Florida after one of the wettest wet seasons the region has ever experienced, according to local officials. Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds gave an update to members of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee on the Corps' water management activities following Hurricane Irma in September, saying the hurricane caused a rapid rise in water levels in Lake Okeechobee and in water conservation areas west of the Miami and Fort Lauderdale metro areas.
"We have been using all tools available to us since the beginning of the summer to address the high water in the conservation areas in south Florida," said Reynolds. "Irma has increased the challenge by dumping a lot of water in areas that were feeling impacts from heavy rains at the beginning of wet season. It also took Lake Okeechobee from a level that was in the middle of our preferred range to the highest stages we've seen in more than a decade."
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) reported Nov. 3 that, from June through October 2017, an average of 51.64 inches of rain fell district-wide, a record for wet season rainfall -- the previous record for that five-month period was set in 1947 when hurricanes caused widespread flooding that led to the formation of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, SFWMD's predecessor. "We are doing everything possible, despite the constraints placed on the flood control system in that area, to lower the water levels in the conservation areas as fast as possible to eliminate the risk of impacts on wildlife," said SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks. "We would also like to thank Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron for everything he has done to draw attention to this crisis."
USACE said the tremendous amount of rainfall inundated the three water conservation areas and affected the wildlife that live there. Following heavy rains in June, the Corps implemented deviations to allow more water to flow from Water Conservation Area 3A into Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, and it August it implemented a deviation to allow high stages in Water Conservation Area 2A to reduce some of the flows going into Water Conservation Area 3A.
Reynolds said the high water levels in the three conservation areas "took away any possibility that we could send water from Lake Okeechobee south when it rose after Irma." Before Irma, the stage at Lake Okeechobee was elevation 13.67 feet, within the Corps' preferred range of 12.5-15.5 feet. But rain from the hurricane took the water level to 17.2 feet, its highest stage since 2004, so in mid-September the Corps started releasing water from the lake to the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal. "We've been releasing as much water as we can from Lake Okeechobee since late September," she said. "We've had to slow the rate of discharges at various times due to high tides and heavy precipitation. We will continue to monitor downstream conditions and adjust accordingly."
From Sept. 15 to Oct. 29, more than 477 billion gallons of water has entered the lake from the watershed to its north and west, and the Corps has released 170 billion gallons of water to the Caloosahatchee and 74 billion gallons to the St. Lucie.