MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Heavy rains have soaked South Florida at an above-average rate for the past couple months and Lake Okeechobee, a usually shallow lake, has swelled to almost 16-feet.
The Army Corps of Engineers, because of the lake’s depth, said Wednesday that they will continue for the foreseeable future to protect the lake’s aging Herbert Hoover Dike during the peak of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season.
“What we’re doing now is preparing for the next event,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, the Corps’ Jacksonville District deputy commander for South Florida.
The six-month hurricane season that begins June 1 historically peaks in August and September. Four tropical storms have formed so far this season, which U.S. government forecasters expect to be very busy with 13 to 20 named storms.
July capped the wettest start to the wet season since 1968, and the last four months have been the wettest April-through-July time period since 1932, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
The district is a state agency that oversees flood control and Everglades restoration from Orlando to the Keys. Officials say the soaking has left them few places to move water as they prepare the system for potential storms. More than 10 inches of rain fell in July across the 16-county district — three inches above average.
Some of the heaviest rains fell over Lake Okeechobee.
Weekly inspections of the lake’s dike began late last month when the water levels hit 15.5 feet. Daily inspections will begin if they reach 16.5 feet, which Greco said could happen in about two weeks.
As of Wednesday, the water level in Lake Okeechobee stood at 15.99 feet. The Corps aims to keep water levels between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.
The Corps controls the dike and locks around the 730-square-mile lake. In the Corps’ 2014 budget request, officials worried that water seeping through the dike could lead to a catastrophic failure and flooding.
No new or significant seepage has been found since the weekly inspections began, Greco said.
The Corps has reinforced a 21-mile stretch of the dike between Belle Glade and Port Mayaca, and it plans to replace 32 culverts and other weakened structures. Rocks and boulders also are stockpiled near the lake in case of a breach.
Environmental advocates say the amount of freshwater being released from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries is causing significant damage to sensitive coastal ecosystems.
Greco said public safety, the condition of the dike and its ability to contain water requires officials “to make a decision that isn’t popular but is necessary.”
The heavy influx of freshwater is linked to a significant algae bloom in the St. Lucie estuary, according to a statement Wednesday from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Audubon Florida has recommended storing water on agricultural lands and fast-tracking Everglades restoration projects that would reduce discharges into both estuaries over the long term.
“The discharges to the coastal estuaries are an ongoing tragedy that demands urgent government response,” Audubon Florida’s Executive Director Eric Draper said in a statement last week. “Dead and dying fish and wildlife are heartbreaking symptoms of a larger water management problem. The local residents who call the area home and rely on the coastal habitats have given new urgency to get to work on solutions.”
To reduce the amount of freshwater flowing into the Caloosahatchee estuary, the South Florida Water Management District has begun pumping water on an emergency basis from the Caloosahatchee River into a storage reservoir, a future Everglades restoration project in Hendry County.
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