Local News

Rainy season leaves local lakes fat and happy

SEBRING - Maybe folks got tired of every day rains, and certainly no one appreciated the flooding, but Highlands County lakes are as healthy as they're going to get. "A few of them could use more water," Lakes Manager Clell Ford said. Seriously? "Yes. But they're in good shape to hold those levels for a while," Ford said. "The evaporation rate is down, and the ground water is loaded nicely, so that's going to keep that water seeping into the sides of lakes. We shouldn't see much drop, so that's something to look forward to in South Florida."
A few lakes are too full: Lake June is flowing out, and so is Lake Jackson. "At least it was when I passed by there last week," Ford said on Tuesday. Although the date is not precise, South Florida Water Management District said the rainy season historically ends in mid-October. It's still raining, of course, but not every day, and not the soakers that saturated South Florida in mid-summer. South Florida water levels are positioned to handle a drier-than-average start to the dry season, officials announced Monday at a joint briefing by SFWMD and the National Weather Service. "Above-average wet season rainfall provided South Florida with some insurance going into the driest months of the year," said Susan Sylvester, SFWMD's Water Control Operations Bureau chief. "We remain mindful, however, that a sustained period of below-average dry season rainfall can have a significant impact on water levels." That's what happened eight years ago. After five hurricanes in 2004-05, 2006 turned into a drought, followed by seven sub-par years. Lake Jackson's docks were out of the water almost the entire time. Water did not touch the outer shores again until this year. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center forecast drier-than-normal conditions. The absence of an El Niņo or La Niņa, however, creates higher uncertainty. The 2013-2014 dry season forecast: . Below-normal precipitation . Slightly above-normal temperatures . 12 to 15 inches of rainfall in the interior and west; 15 to 21 inches in the east. The Kissimmee and Southwest Coast regions totaled the largest rainfalls, from 9.63 inches above-average in Lee and Collier counties to 18.61 inches above average in Highlands and Okeechobee counties. Miami-Dade County received the least rainfall among populated areas, just 1.44 inches above the wet-season average. Lake Okeechobee, which stood at 15.57 feet on Monday, received 34.65 inches of rain during the wet season - 126 percent or 7.14 inches above average. On Friday, spokesman John Campbell said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges. The hurricane season will continue through Nov. 30. According to NOAA, from 1851 to 2012, one or two tropical storms and one hurricane usually appear in the final six weeks. "We have reached that sweet spot, but the tropical season is not completely over yet, knock on wood," Ford said. But barring an extreme weather event, lake levels will drop nominally until February, he said. "That's normal," Ford said. "Lakes need to fluctuate." Fishing has improved on some lakes. "I've heard for the first time in a long time that they are catching some big bass on Jackson again, and that's fantastic," Ford said. Fish kills were reported on a few lakes, "Isolated incidents. I don't hear the fish are in bad condition, no sores or anything." A few Highlands County lakes have algae blooms, notably Lake Byrd in Avon Park, Ford said. "That's probably because of nutrients." The lake was already high in nitrogen, and runoff probably brought in phosphorus. That could be a warning for residents to watch their use of fertilizers. "You don't have to use nearly as much fertilizer as you think, Ford said. "No matter where you live in Highlands County, that water will go into a lake. No matter where you live, you're in a watershed." gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828