The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida on March 29, 1998 · Page 21
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March 29, 1998

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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 21

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West Palm Beach, Florida
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Sunday, March 29, 1998
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Page 21
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SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 1998 THE PALM BEACH POST 22A Lake Okeechobee's marshes key to its health uMof Rcmirpps Deoart- El Nino rain years Strong El Ninos usually bring South Florida more rain, but not always. Lake Okeechobee rising Because of El Nino rains, Lake Okeechobee is higher than it has ever been for this time of year. Water managers say long-term weather forecasts weren't accurate enough for them to start draining the lake to avoid this emergency. Normal rainfall for November-March dry season: 10.6 inches Average for all strong Nino years: 15.5 inches (47 percent above normal) e ii EE3 ? i 1 1 j 1 h f-m : n s 1 10 EE3 . i J a i 1 1 ;r i j j 1 . r -i Jfoter levels, t JJ1L 1 - 1 1 " lLiUL-i-l 1 1 1 L . . i L. I t-jj . October to begin lowering the lake. But on Oct. 31, district officials responded that they would stick with their usual procedure keeping the outlets shut unless water levels reached trigger points set years ago by the corps. In October, which had mostly dry skies, the lake actually fell almost 3 inches, district staff member Alan Hall said later. The district also was considering imposing water restrictions along the Gulf Coast, which had been parched for months. District officials also noted that a few El Ninos, such as the one that struck in 1991-92, bring less rain than usual. Even if this El Nino brought a third more rain than average, Hall said, "we would not expect to have any particular problem with lake stages." Instead, 25 inches of rain have poured on the region since Nov. 1, almost 2.5 times the average. Upstream of the lake, rainfall has been three times the average. As the lake rose, the corps started gradual releases Dec. 18, eventually accelerating them about as fast as they could without flooding homes. Even so, the lake set a record peak for the dry season. Last week, it stood at 18.4 feet above sea level. Facing similar warnings last fall, California officials spent more than $50 million in El Nino preparations, said Ray Hart, deputy director of that ment. They cleared drainage channels, repaired levees, trained thousands of people to pack sandbags and stationed workers in likely trouble spots long before the rains hit. But much like their Florida counterparts, California's water managers rejected pleas to drain reservoirs in advance of. the storms. Two reservoirs in Northern California almost spilled qve as a result, Hart said, but.no damage occurred. 'Irresponsible to drain' "It would be irresponsible for us to drain our reservoirs," Hart said. "We have a huge portioaof our population thats extremely dependent on them." iii; Poole said two things may help prevent a repeat of this year's woes: advances in long-range weather forecasting and a proposed network of regional reservoirs that could take the excess water. District chief engineer Kent Loftin said the district -already is experimenting with links between seasonal weather, satellite readings and conditions like sunspots, but the models areji't ready for use. "We certainly aren't happy," Poole said. "The damage we're doing not only to the (mafsji) zone but to the estuaries is just unacceptable. That's what's got to stop." U. I ,1 Ja ft M. Oct Jk M. Oct to. M. OeL la JJ '57-58 '65-66 72-73 '82-83 '86-87 '91-92 '97-98 piiiki Percent above or below normal 1995 EaESEl 1997 MJOuiiiM- LAKE From 1A Poole said he asked for a legal review of that question in 1994 but district staff members said they're still studying the proposal. Nelson said both controversies illustrate the district's willingness to damage the environment rather than offend powerful interests, especially farmers who want the lake as full as possible for irrigation. District board member Kill Hammond said he agrees that the management of the lake needs to change. Still, he said, he cant fault the district's employees for this year's water glut. "It's obvious, no, it didn't have to happen," Hammond said. "But under the current operating procedures, they did what they're supposed to do." He added that it's impossible to make quick changes in a 750-square-mile lake with few drainage outlets. "It's like steering a tanker that's full. You don't turn around very quickly." Even before this winter, Lake Okeechobee was ailing after years of heavy rains that have submerged its 95,000 acres of fringe marsh. 'Liquid heart' Though the lake is often called South Florida's "liquid heart," the marsh functions as its kidneys. Its plants and soils help remove excess phosphorus, the nutrient that causes fish-killing algae blooms and helps pollute the Everglades. The marsh also provides nurseries for fish and feeding grounds for water birds. When the kidneys aren't operating, Hammond notes, taxpayers have to spend money removing the phosphorus. And when the lake rises too Source U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ROB BARGEStaff Artist ROB BARGEStaff Artist t eastern United States. And that's what happened. The meteorologists also predicted that this El Nino would be about as strong as the century's fiercest, which hit in 1982-83. That one killed some 2,000 people worldwide and dumped 23 inches of rain on South and Central Florida that winter more than double the average for the dry season. Enough warning? Nelson says that should have been warning enough for the water district. He said he urged the water managers in August and to Florida Bay. But as recently as a year ago, the lake was dropping and water managers thought it was in for a respite. Then, El Nino arrived. In forecasts issued as far back as August, the National Weather Service and the federal Climate Prediction Center declared a dramatic resurgence of the Pacific warm-water pattern, which spawns droughts, floods and storms worldwide. Among other effects, they predicted a mild winter in the Northeast and abnormally heavy rains in California and the south- much, the coasts suffer. The Army Corps of Engineers the district's partner in managing the lake dumps the excess water down the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal, where the bursts of fresh water devastate fish and other marine creatures. That's what has happened this year, in an ecological and economic chain reaction. The black, smelly water and lack offish have driven away tourists, and fishermen say pelicans show signs of starvation. Hammond says he fears a repeat of the mass manatee deaths that occurred in 1995, the last time the lake was spewing this much water. All this is artificial. Before the era of dikes and canals, the lake had no outlet except for the Everglades, which allowed extra water to seep in a 50-mile-wide arc TOMMY&SJJHILFIGEIt : GOLF 0 lorge. s Ralph Lauren shipmer" firJt Collection s(lortl . s(,im . ponh . 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