Local News

Rainfall saturating Highlands County

SEBRING -With water levels rising from months of above-average rainfall, the South Florida Water Management District is again taking emergency action to reduce freshwater impacts on the downstream estuary. "There's a lot of water throughout the region," Okeechobee Service Center Director Gary Ritter told the Highlands County commissioners on Tuesday. "We've gotten 170 percent of normal rainfall." Although Lake Istokpoga is at its regulation stage and is where it is supposed to be, Lake Okeechobee is above 15 feet, Ritter said. "We are hearing a lot of screaming from the folks in those areas," Ritter said. "Why don't we just stop the inflow into Lake Okeechobee? That's a lot easier said than done. The (Army Corps of Engineers) has leveled off the inflows. But over the previous month or so, we've had three times as much coming in as going out. It's just because of all the rainfall we've had."
To that, Commission Chair Jack Richie passed along a tongue-in-cheek observation about the giant apple snail, which he said usually lays its eggs three inches above the waterline. "It seems the giant apple snail has now moved to 12 inches from waterline. I'm predicting substantially more rain. So heads up Gary, it's coming at you." The good news, Ritter said: "Some of your lakes are really benefitting greatly from the replenishment of the aquifer." "It's creating a lot of benefit for Lake Jackson," Ritter said. Water was standing Tuesday on beaches and grassy shorelines that had not seen standing water for six years. President Barack Obama has declared that three of five Panhandle counties - Holmes, Walton and Washington - hit by heavy rains during the first week of July - are eligible for federal disaster relief. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency will make federal disaster aid available. Gov. Rick Scott had requested the declaration for public assistance also include Okaloosa and Bay counties. The five counties incurred more than $29.9 million in estimated infrastructure damage during storms between July 2 and July 7. The totals did not include damages to private property. County Administrator June Fisher said Highlands has not reached that level, despite more than 30 inches of rain in the past two months. County Commissioners Don Elwell and Jack Richie reported localized flooding in their districts, affecting more than a dozen homes. This rainy season is setting records. South Florida Water Management District said May 18 through Aug. 1 was the wettest start to the wet season since 1968, and that 2013 recorded the wettest June since 2005 and the wettest July since 2001. District meteorologists also reported the wettest April-through-July period on record in South Florida since 1932. This is also the wettest April-through-July in South Florida since 1932. South Florida's 21-week wet season usually begins around May 20 and ends around Oct. 13. Since 1932, virtually all wet seasons have produced two to four feet of rainfall. South Florida's wet season has three general phases; the early July though mid-August phase is usually the hottest and driest, but not this year. Late August through October is characterized by variable rainfall mainly due to tropical activity and cold fronts. "South Florida is saturated, leaving very few places to move water as we work to keep the system prepared for the peak of the hurricane season," said Susan Sylvester, SFWMD chief of the Water Control Operations Bureau. "Our continual challenge with heavy rainfall is balancing flood control for 7.7 million residents while protecting the region's wildlife and natural systems, including the Everglades." Commissioners declined to take up the Common Core issue, which Richie placed on the agenda because he had received a petition. "I don't feel like a resolution that is under our jurisdiction," said Commissioner Ron Handley, who is the son of former school superintendent Ruth Handley. "I feel like this is something the school board should act on." "I agree with Mr. Handley," Commissioner Jim Brooks said. "I agree wholeheartedly," Commissioner Greg Harris said. "I don't think we should do this." Some of the statements in the petition may not be factually true, Commissioner Don Elwell said. He suggested that research should be conducted before commissioners take up the issue. "I made some phone calls," County Attorney Ross Macbeth said. "Some of the legal conclusions are incorrect. And this comes to you without an open investigation." If commissioners want background information, Macbeth suggested, they should consult the association of state governors and the associations of state commissioners of eduction. Jack Nelson, president of the local tea party, suggested that was not true. Common Core is happening "under direction of Barack Obama. This is federally driven. As far as the local school board goes, Mr. Andy Tuck has already made the comment that this is a done deal, and that there is nothing we can do about it. I don't buy it." Local school boards will become obsolete under Common Core, Nelson maintained. Common Core is a corporate money maker for book publishers and Microsoft, Nelson said. "They stand to make millions and millions off all new books written and the training guides." County Administrator June Fisher said she will be working on a gatekeeping system that will require department heads to seek permission to call the county attorney. Commissioners hope this will safe money. Macbeth bills the county $189 per hour. At the request of citizen Rick Ingler, Richie asked Fisher to determine the cost of having security at county commission meetings. Ingler spoke about a shooting during a meeting Monday night in Ross Township, Pa. that left three people dead. The gunman was tackled by a local official and shot with his own gun before being taken into custody, a witness said. "I attend most of these meetings, don't want to be die in a meeting," Ingler said gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828