Florida's biggest body of water was once the subject of a joke on Get Smart. Kaos had a weapon that could evaporate water. Smart was told Kaos had used it on the two biggest bodies of water- Lake O and the swimming pool at the Fontainebleau Hotel.
Today you almost wonder if that television comedy was coming true.
The good news: Lake Okeechobee is so low that the Herbert Hoover Dike is unlikely to collapse anytime soon.
The bad news: Lake Okeechobee is so low that water managers are discussing the possibility of drought.
Staff members of the South Florida Water Management District gingerly broached the "D" word Tuesday after months of expressing worries about the dangers of catastrophic flooding if high lake levels break a hole in the dike.
Water managers don't plan any imminent action, noting that plenty of rain is possible as Florida enters the most active months of hurricane season. But recent history offers reason for concern about both extremes, they say.
As of Tuesday, the lake was at 12.16 feet above sea level, nearly 3 feet below average for this time of year.
In fact, lake levels are within 2 inches of where they were on this date in 2000, when an abnormally dry rainy season set the stage for a severe drought the following year that led to water restrictions and wildfires.
On the other hand, the lake was around the same elevation in early August 2004, only to shoot up nearly 6 feet by mid-October under the barrage of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne. The resulting high lake levels caused leaks to sprout in the eroded earthen dike, which a district-sponsored report has labeled a "grave and imminent danger" to human life.
Its incredible we can have such a swing in two years. There was also Hurricane Wilma that came through South Florida in 2005.
It's too soon to say which way this season will go, said Scott Burns, who directs the district's water supply policy implementation.Barring alot of rain, it looks like we're in for water restrictions again. Lake Okeechobee is South Florida's fresh water source. Maybe these swings in the lake's level means man was never meant to live in such numbers in this part of the state. We're long past time for that debate however.
"Right now, we can be on the precipice of an extremely wet condition if we run into a year like 2004," he said. "Or we can be in an extremely drought year."
Susan Sylvester, deputy director for operations control, said, "In the middle would be kind of nice."
January through July was the second-driest such period on record in the Upper Kissimmee River valley, and the seventh-driest in the Lower Kissimmee valley — major sources of the lake's water, Sylvester said.
Even the prospect of encountering another year of water shortages had some district board members chuckling in disbelief.
"You just told us that next year we're going to have another 2001 or something like that," said Lennart Lindahl, a board member from Tequesta.
"Not necessarily," Sylvester said.
Water managers warned that such debates are likely to become more pressing as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves ahead with proposals to keep lake levels lower year-round, both to safeguard the lake's ecology and to protect the dike. Lower lake levels also have won the endorsement of Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed all nine district board members.
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