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 multi-million-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, 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.”