SEBRING - Rainfall records were set in May, June, July and August. Eight times between June and September, Lake Istokpoga recorded two-inch or better rainfalls.
Highlands County lakes are full. Even Lake Jackson, which has been emptying since the drought began in 2006, has only 1.5 feet of storage space left before water begins flowing out. Last week, Lakes Manager Clell Ford said Jackson stood at 101.6 feet above sea level. "That's 3.4 feet higher since the end of May."
Southwest Florida Water Management District officials say the aquifer is 1.7 feet higher than last year. And now, Florida's hurricane season is peaking.
So the question is, if a big, wet hurricane or tropical storm soaks Highlands County, where will the stormwater go?
v vOne answer can be found south of Lake Placid on XR Ranch, where Cary Lightsey has been raising beef, citrus and grandchildren.
"This will be the 14th generation," said Lightsey. A tall cowboy under a white hat, he looks like a typical rancher, but he's soft-spoken yet emphatic about his values: an admirer of swallow-tailed kites and Archbold Biological Station, a defender of bears and gators but not wild pig. Asked about a plant, he retrieves "The Guide to Florida Wildflowers" from his King Ranch pickup.
"I'm not an environmentalist, but I guess you could call me a conservationist." About 85 percent of his 3,500 acres are in conservation easements, and he talks of another 6,000 acres nearby. One of those easements stores 887 acre-feet of water that bubbles from the Lake Wales Ridge. The runoff stays in a lily-pad retention pond until it overflows into Boot Hill Creek and washes into Fisheating Creek.
Drive south from Lake Placid and where U.S. 27 begins downhill, that's where the ridge ends. That's why northwestern Highlands County's rainfall winds up in the XR Ranch's pond, where Lightsey said the number of waterfowl have quadrupled since he contracted with SFWMD to start the project.
"We've had 42.3 inches since June 1," Lightsey said. That's why the 580 acres set aside for the retention pond expands to 900 acres, covering nearly 1.5 square miles.
The value of water is diminished in this wet year, he understands. "But if we were in a drought, you'd be saying, 'Thanks.'"
Most of peninsular Florida's lakes are connected by canals. On the western side of the state, stormwater flows through Fisheating Creek and the Peace River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lake Jackson, for instance, is chained to Little Lake Jackson, then Josephine, Istokpoga, Okeechobee and the Everglades. Most of Avon Park's lakes flow to Arbuckle Creek, which winds up in Istokpoga.
Stormwater releases must be carefully regulated. Let excess rainwater out of Florida's titanic Lake Okeechobee too fast and estuaries along the Atlantic Ocean will flood, killing fish and aquatic plant life. Let out water too slowly and the freshwater plants and fish die.
People and property are the larger consideration, however.
"Flooding trumps everything," Ford said. Istokpoga is managed by South Florida Water Management District, but Jackson, Lake June-in-Winter and most Highlands County's lakes are under the jurisdiction of Southwest Florida WMD.
"June is about where it's supposed to be," Ford said. However, if a hurricane comes and SWFWMD has to pre-release water, its options will be limited, he said.
"The downstream folks, they can get flooded pretty quickly," Ford said. "When water gets that high, there's just nowhere for it go," Ford said.
Storing water on ranch land remains a primary short-term option for the Senate Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin. However, short-term solutions are needed to remove harmful nitrogen-heavy muck and other toxins that have been associated with the deaths of manatees and other estuary wildlife, which also devastates local tourism and property values.
"We have to focus on the base hits, not the home runs," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said. Using vast ranch and agriculture lands for water storage reduces the amount of water downstream when a release is needed, the News Service of Florida wrote on Aug. 23.
South Florida Water Management District diverts water onto nine ranches; and another 19 are submitting proposals. The Senate committee is also looking at using public land to hold even more water until it's needed.
Ranchers can't use the stored water, but Lightsey thinks the pond on his land generally raises the water table, which keeps the grass growing and the calves fatter.
"Water is our lifeblood," State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, told the committee.
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, questions the finances, however. "No one has mentioned the quantity of money," he said.
SFWMD contracted to pay Lightsey $157 per acre foot - about $1.37 million over the next 10 years.
v vCraig Fugate, who was Jeb Bush's emergency operations chief during Florida's disastrous 2004-05 hurricane seasons, now directs FEMA. He's worried that Floridians aren't worried enough about hurricanes.
"We're in denial. It's not amnesia. People remember the storms; they're just in denial that it can happen to them," Fugate said Aug. 20 during a visit to the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.
During last year's Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic Coast residents in the Carolinas and New Jersey didn't evacuate because they lived outside the center of the forecast zone. Take evacuation orders more seriously, he suggested.
"Don't focus on the storm," Fugate advised. "Focus on the impacts."
If a hurricane does come, the water management districts and Highlands County have emergency plans.
"The plan is watch the weather all the time," Ford said. "Emergency Management Services and road and bridge will coordinate with the water management districts. If they're as certain as can be that there is a storm coming, they'll remove as many boards as they can." The simplest dam structures are operated by adding or removing two-by-six planks.
"We don't have a lot of structures we can operate," Ford said. "If the projections are to dump a foot of water in a day - and Hurricane Sandy raised Istokpoga by a foot - we have to prevent flooding. We wish we could hang onto every drop, but that's the decision we have to make."
Make no mistake, Ford said. No matter the decisions are made, if enough water falls on Highlands County, some spots will flood.
"If you are in a bowl, the only respite you have is pumping," said County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete.
"We have aerials, we have surveys, we have localized studies, we know where the water will go," said Gavarrete: Toni Drive, Highlands Estates. Sandy Tyrell's riding stables between Spring Lake and Lorida always flood after a heavy rainfall. The county will move pumps and other equipment to those areas in anticipation of county, state and federal governments' declaration of a state of emergency, Gavarrete said.
The county has improved flooded areas since the President's Day storm of 15 years ago, Gavarrete said. "That caused a lot of massive flooding. Thunderbird Hills and a bunch of other neighborhoods had problems. The soil already saturated, and we had two 100-year storms back to back. This year, thank God, we haven't had that."
The county received mitigation grants and fixed Old State Road 8, Toni Drive, U.S. 27 along Lake Jackson and other areas. The road and bridge department regularly cleans canals, ditches and keeps culverts in good repair. All that ensures stormwater will flow.
"Spring Lake Improvement District did a very good job. Their pumps are functional, and they have agreements with the water management district and the property owners.
"The areas that could be drained have been drained," Gavarrete said.
The public can help, Gavarrete said. "We need to keep people from putting in obstructions. People need to have their personal plans for evacuation. If they don't have flood insurance and they know they're in an area prone to flooding, go get it. I know it's expensive, but expensive flood insurance is better than having to replace their entire house."