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Lake Okeechobee surpasses 12 feet for first time since January '07

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lake Okeechobee is three-fourths the size of Rhode Island and contains, at capacity, an astounding 1 trillion gallons of water.

It takes a staggering amount of rain to raise the level by even 6 inches.

Tropical Storm Fay did it in two days.

The storm dropped 2 feet of water over parts of the Space Coast and a foot over parts of the Treasure Coast, which all but shut the region down.

During a seven-day period ending Thursday afternoon, which included some pre-Fay storms, about 8 inches fell directly on the lake. That raised it to 12.22 feet above sea level, the first time it has surpassed 12 feet since January 2007.

The level could rise another 6 inches or more over the next few days, once water from rain that saturated the Kissimmee River flood plain works its way down. And Fay, still hanging around the state, could drop even more rain on the Kissimmee valley.

Lake Okeechobee rose 18 inches after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and a foot after Tropical Storm Ernesto in 2006 - the last time it was at 13 feet.

The lake still remains about 2 feet below its historical average. At 13 feet, it would be above the "water shortage management zone" as defined by the South Florida Water Management District.

But it is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that sets that level, which is now 121/2 to 151/2 feet. The corps cites the need to balance the conflicting threats of drought or a breach in the Herbert Hoover Dike

"This was a great event with respect with getting water into Lake O that we really needed," Susan Sylvester, the district's operations control director, said Thursday.

But, she noted, the lake's level began dropping soon after Ernesto hit in September 2006. By July 2007, it had dropped more than 4 feet to its all-time low of 8.82 feet.

"If it were to stop raining, we'd go right back into water shortage management," Sylvester said.

The district is moving ahead with plans for permanent year-round restrictions on lawn watering.

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