SEBRING - With more than 38 inches of rainfall in the past 55 days, Highlands County and southern Florida water levels are reaching critical stages.
"July will be the fourth month in a row with above-average rainfall," said Gabe Margasak, media relations representative at South Florida Water Management District. "Water levels in ... the water conservation areas are above their target levels. This means there is nowhere for the district to store additional rainfall."
Water is getting into homes. Two weeks ago, two sisters and their boyfriends, "Complete strangers," said Lorraine Russell, who lives on Washington Boulevard east of Lake Placid, came over at 1:30 a.m. and sandbagged around her mobile home for three hours.
That kept water from coming into her garage and back porch, but a few days ago, it began seeping up through the floors in both bedrooms.
"The carpet in both bedrooms are wet," said Russell, a diabetic with an insulin pump. The Red Cross has already put up one family at the Kenilworth Hotel for three days. Now Russell and her friend, a cancer survivor who is still weak from chemotherapy, are moving to a hotel too.
"It just gets worse every time it rains," Russell said. "The Highlands Park Volunteer Fire Department has been pumping water out of my yard. One of their pumps burned out."
Hurricane season began in June, but the season peaks from mid-August to late October, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Highlands County Lakes Manager Clell Ford is carefully watching levels.
"We're releasing as much water as we can from Lake June," Ford said on Tuesday, another rainy day. "There's a lot of water coming out of Lake Josephine. We have very high lake levels on Lake Clay and Lake Sebring, and Arbuckle Creek is flowing quite fast and high. Lake Placid is flowing now for the first time since 2006. Lake Placid is letting water flowing out of the culverts. That's a good situation. Lake Jackson came up half a foot in a week."
Jackson and some northern Highlands County lakes aren't full, Ford said. Avon Park hasn't received as much rain as southern parts of the county.
Granville Kinsman, manager of the hydrologic data section of Southwest Florida Water Management District, reported that Hicoria, north of Archbold Biological Station, received more than 27 inches, while Avon Park recorded 17.3 inches.
Surprisingly, Ford said, "There are lakes in Avon Park that need rain."
Once again, the waterline is touching many docks at Lake Jackson, a sinkhole which has been one of Highlands County's lowest lakes in the past seven years.
"The most recent level, last Friday, was right at 100 feet above sea level," Ford said. Jackson's recent high level was January 2006, at 102.6, just before a drought began which lasted until Spring 2013.
In June 2008, Jackson sunk to 96.37. "Which is as low as anybody can recall," Ford said.
Now, Ford said, "We're hoping for a day or two of respite."
As it turned out, Wednesday was dry, but a torrential rain hit Highlands County on Thursday morning.
Lake Jackson fluctuated too much for too long, but rising and falling levels are good for a lake's ecosystem, Ford said. During dry seasons, grass grows on the banks and provides hiding places for fish and smaller organisms. "It provides a natural wetland. Lots of organic things are growing. That's important for lake wildlife. When lake levels go up and down, it promotes growth and health and provides the fish a greater variety of places to eat."
Kinsman said Gate 90, the only structure SWFWMD operates in Highlands County, is currently releasing water from Lake June in Winter into Jack Creek, which continues to flow into Lake Josephine, then Lake Istokpoga, then to Lake Okeechobee, then the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean.
Margasak said the Lower Kissimmee Basin, which includes the eastern border of Highlands County, has seen some of the wettest conditions in the 16-county South Florida Water Management District so far this month and for the wet season to date.
SFWMD is operating flood control pump stations at Lake Istokpoga, discharging basin runoffs from every coastal structure, and coordinating with local drainage districts and governments that operate the network of smaller flood control systems feeding the large regional canals. Engineers and water managers are monitoring real-time conditions 24 hours a day and lowering regional water levels in preparation for the peak of the hurricane season.
Highlands isn't the only wet county in the peninsula. Lemon Bay in Charlotte County has received 26.43 inches, Tiger Bay Slough in DeSoto County has received 27.49 inches, North Port in Sarasota County has received 29.83 inches, and Sulphur Springs in Hillsborough County has received 30.35 inches, Kinsman said.