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Why drain Lake O? One storm could push it to its limits

In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay slogged through Florida, dumping as much as 20 inches of rain in central regions of the state and pushing Lake Okeechobee levels up 4 feet in a single month.

People rejoiced. Palm Beach County was in the grip of a damaging drought, and the lake, a reservoir for Glades cities and backup water supply to millions of coastal residents, was reaching record-low levels.

If Fay rolled through today, people could die.

On Thursday, Lake Okeechobee stood at 14.93 feet above sea level. An additional 4 feet would push it into dike-bursting territory.

“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad,” said Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert. “We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for managing water levels in Lake Okeechobee so the aging Herbert Hoover Dike doesn’t erode, putting communities around the lake in danger of flooding.

The Corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. The highest the lake has been was 18.7 feet in 1947, said John Campbell, a spokesman for the Corps.

In February, it reached 16.4 feet after the wettest January on record left the 16 counties overseen by the South Florida Water Management District with 7.25 inches of rain above normal.

Since then, billions of gallons per day of fresh lake water have been released into the brackish ecosystems of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Still, the lake level July 1 was the highest for that date in a decade.

“As we sit today, the dike is not in any imminent danger,” Campbell said. “It’s that we are in the rainy season right now and have a lot of concerns, because the consequences of a breach in the dike are widespread loss of homes, businesses and potential loss of life.”

A 2006 report commissioned by the South Florida Water Management District included one worse-case scenario that showed Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay under 1 to 5 feet of water for weeks after a dike breach.

“It is dangerous not to dump water,” Gray said.

Tropical Storm Isaac, a soggy storm that parked a feeder band over South Florida in 2012, caused widespread flooding in Palm Beach County’s western communities, and pushed the lake level from 12.39 feet above sea level to 15.38 feet in one month.

In 2004, when hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne made Florida landfalls, the lake rose more than 5 feet in 60 days.

“People say, ‘Why didn’t you release more water?’ ” Campbell said. “Well, this is what releasing more water looks like.”

It’s not pretty.

Cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, has gorged on the phosphorous- and nitrogen-heavy lake water, building massive algae blooms in Treasure Coast waterways that are already weakened by local stormwater runoff and septic tanks.

Gray said the phosphorous goal for Lake Okeechobee is 40 parts per billion, but recent phosphorous levels have been between 100 and 200 parts per billion, which “make cyanobacteria blooms a constant threat.”

The guacamole-thick goo triggered Gov. Rick Scott to declare states of emergency in four counties, including Palm Beach, and to rebuke federal authorities whom he said are “solely” responsible for repairing the dike so that it can hold more water.

The water management district released a statement Thursday called “Get the Facts” that said about $1.1 billion in federal money has been spent on design and construction of projects through the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which is meant to improve Florida’s water storage capacities and improve water quality.

Florida has spent $2 billion in land acquisition, project design and construction, the district’s statement said.

The corps reduced lake discharges June 30 by 35 percent to 756 million gallons per day into the St. Lucie Estuary, and 1.9 billion gallons per day into the Caloosahatchee.

That outflow will remain the same at least for another week, the corps announced Thursday.

“The lake remains high for this time of year,” said Jim Jeffords, Jacksonville District operations division chief for the Corps. “Wet conditions during our normal dry season tested the water management system in South Florida.”

And the forecast for the coming months may strain the state’s complicated plumbing system even further.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting above-average rainfall for Florida through September. Because northern lakes and rivers also drain into Lake Okeechobee, its water level can rise up to 6 inches faster than water can be released.

Stephen Baxter, a meteorologist with the center, said the forecast takes into account predictions that this hurricane season is expected to be near or slightly above normal.

“There is a tilt toward the wetter side, but it’s a slight tilt,” Baxter said. “It will also remain quite warm over the next couple of months.”

That could help with evaporation rates from Lake Okeechobee, but Gray said those are minimal.

“If you can get an inch of evaporation every week, that’s pretty good, but it’s not enough to fix the problems,” Gray said.

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