Lake Okeechobee levels rise with the rainy season less than a month away
The Caloosahatchee River is the largest river in Southwest Florida and stretches from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Myers News-Press
The liquid heart of the historic Everglades has likely bottomed out for the year as rain is forecast for the next week and the rainy season is less than a month away.
"In the month of May we’ve already had a considerable amount of rain and that trend through the rest of the month is likely to continue," said John Mitnik, with the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of moving water in the Everglades system.
Lake Okeechobee is the key to managing a 16-county water district that stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys.
Water that flows into and out of the lake dictates everything from discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers to how much water is available for Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
The surface of the lake fell to just above 11 feet above sea level earlier this month, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that manages the lake.
"It had been trending down throughout the past month or so, but with the recent rains this week lake levels have actually increased some," Mitnik said.
Lake levels have been kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level in the past decade or so to provide flood protection for thousands of people living south of the lake while also providing drinking water to millions of Floridians and what's left of the Everglades.
But Corps leaders agreed this year to let the lake fall in hopes that more storage will be available during the upcoming rainy season. The idea is that lower lake levels will allow the Corps to hold back releases in case there's another blue-green algae bloom on the lake.
Last year a bloom started on the lake in June and was found in the Caloosahatchee soon after.
Some organizations and politicians have said they'd like to see the surface of the lake at 10.5 feet above sea level to cut down on summer releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
More rain is in the forecast.
"For the next couple of days into the weekend we're going to have summer-like afternoon and evening thunderstorms," said Jennifer Hubbard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said Friday. "But Monday and Tuesday there's going to be a front. It's the weakened tail end of the front and moisture from that will allow for more scattered thunderstorms, but it's not going to be the typical summer-time stuff."
Hubbard said that daily highs will be in the upper 80s to lower 90s.
She said the rainy season will start within the next month or so.
"There is no hard-fast date for when the rainy season begins but it's usually by the mid-June time frame," Hubbard said. "Some years it might be a little earlier and sometimes it might be a little bit later. The pattern we're in is kind of a transition into summer."
Mitnik said the wet season may have already started.
"The call on 'yes, the rainy season has started,' is more of a retrospective call," Mitnik said Thursday at a water management district meeting. "Depending on how far that front comes down and how it effects weather patterns about mid-week to the end of next week. There may be a small gap in time with a couple of drier days and then the wet season will have likely started after that but if the front doesn’t make it all the way down the peninsula, more than likely, last week I would say the rainy season has already started and the wet season has already started."
El Nino has been impacting weather recently and is expected to this summer and possibly into the fall.
"El Nino is likely to continue through the summer and even into the fall there's a 55 to 65 percent chance of it continuing, but honestly it doesn't have much of an impact in the summer," Hubbard said. "We might see a little bit less hurricane activity but it's not a huge factor."
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A paddle through the Northern Everglades with News-Press reporters Chad Gillis and Andrew West Fort Myers News-Press
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