287-day streak ends

Lake’s 287-day streak comes to an end, but 400th day below 11 feet is in sight

Rain or Shine Report for March 26

Adjustment of minimum water levels made the news in a Sun-Sentinel story by Andy Reid.

The rule change – still under review – would drop the “environmental floor” from 14 to 12.5 ft in ARM Loxahatchee NWR and from 10.5 to 10 ft in downstream Water Conservation Area 2A. Adjustment of those rules was deemed necessary by water managers to provide additional flexibility in feeding waters to downstream public water supply well fields.

Currently, regulatory stage in Loxahatchee is around 16.5 ft and regulatory stage in 2A is about 12.25 ft. That puts both at 5-year high-water marks for late March, and about 10 inches above late March of last year for both areas. If we turn the clock back to the nadir of last Spring’s drydown, Loxahatchee bottomed out at 14.85 and 2A bottomed out at around 10.3.

But the big story at our doorstep today is all the rain that has soaked south Florida this February and March. At the current rate those thresholds may not even come into play this year.

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Rains have been especially plentiful over Loxahatchee and Palm Beach: 10 inches have been recorded in both areas since the start of February. South Florida wide the total is closer to 6 inches, and the Southwest Coast – an area extending from Naples to Ft Myers – remains low-basin-on-the-totem-pole at 4.5 inches.

Rainfall on the Lake – at 5 inches on the nose – has been a difference maker.

The combination of that rain, and inflows from the Kissimmee, has buoyed the Lake out of the record drought territory that it had been treading for the past 10 months, which the Palm Beach Post dubbed as the Lake’s 287-day losing streak.

The Lake did not break that streak with a dramatic rise in stage as one might expect, but rather with a more subtle side step: the Lake has been holding steady at just above 10 ft for the past 6 months, and that didn’t change.
That shows that sometimes in life holding steady is good enough to break out of a slump. You’ve got to weather the storm. Or in this case, weather the lack of storms. The Lake can smile broadly: it’s currently about an inch higher than late March of 2001.

Such a straight-line hovering act is unusual for this time of year. Last year, during the same 6-month period (from October through March), the Lake dropped 3 feet in comparison: and about 2 feet over that span in 2001.

How far will the Lake drop down this spring?

It’s probably about time we call it quits on guessing that one. I’m not sure the Lake will ever leave 10 ft.

If history can be a guide, all it takes is one good month of rain, or a storm in just the right spot, and Lake stage can rebound dramatically several feet. As proof, compare 1981 – a record drought year – to 1983 – a record flood year; or even more recently, the high-water years sandwiched between record lows in 2001 and 2007.

This isn’t the American Southwest where reservoir stages are down 100 ft. The Lake is only 4 ft below its late March average.

But to answer the question of how far the Lake will drop? It’s becoming clear that it will not drop as deep as predicted just a few months ago. That’s because last week’s rain – in helping to preserve the Lake’s just-above-10 balancing act – continues to shorten the playing field (to use a baseball term) of the dry season that remain: 10 ft in November was unnerving, but 10 ft in April … not so much so.

Keep in mind that Lake stage is still at a critically low level, and is tied in a horse race to the finish line with the 2007 and 2001 drought years. Remember that last year the Lake reached its all-time low of 8.82 in late June 2007. The Lake also touched below the 9 ft mark in 2001.

Sometimes we focus on the wrong numbers. The 287-day streak comes to an end, but another streak marches on: the Lake is poised to notch its 400th day below the 11 ft mark.

That’s essentially the level below which the Lake’s interior wetlands go dry. And don’t forget that 6 months of that duration was below 10 ft. That’s the level when even the deepest of deep water holes go dry, leaving just the Lake and canals with standing water.

So often we hear that Lake Okeechobee is the backup water supply for 5 million residents of Florida’s southeast coast. Now I’m reading in the Orlando Sentinel that water supply strings are pulling on the Lake from both ends. Upstream Orange County, at the headwaters of the Kissimmee River – is requesting a permit to draw more water at the river’s source. The Kissimmee River provides the Lake with a quarter of its annual flow volume: rainfall provides another half and smaller tributaries the other quarter.

Similar water supply requests are playing out in Jacksonville with the St Johns and Sarasota with the Peace, but both of those are at the downstream tailwaters of their rivers, in comparison request on the Kissimmee at its headwaters.

Weekend rains also gave Big Cypress National Preserve another good soaking. That pushes the February and March rainfall total up to 7.5 inches. Not quite Loxahatchee numbers, but enough to keep the wetting front up in the cypress domes and strands, and at keeping wetland stage levels at just about the same level as seen back 4 months ago in December.

The February and March rains have made it a below average start to the wildfire season in Collier County, as reported by the Naples Daily News, but not enough to start refilling the aquifers with water. Naples and Ft Myers have only received 4.5 inches of rain. That’s only about average.

But whose complaining? Only 1.5 inches fell during a similar 2-month period last year.

Every drop counts!
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