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Rain puts farms, cities in conflict with Everglades

South Florida's water managers are faced with a dilemma: what to do with all of September's rain.

The South Florida Water Management District has allowed some Everglades conservation areas to flood to protect sugar and vegetables farms and cities.

The result has been large numbers of deer and other wildlife stranded on newly formed islands of high ground south of Alligator Alley, where water is up to 4 feet deep.

More than a quarter, or about 450, of the starving deer already have died.

Environmentalists, outdoorsmen and animal rights groups have criticized the decision to put so much water in the conservation areas, but water managers say they had no choice.

"When you have this much rainfall in a flat, historically swampy terrain, this is what happens," said Mike Slayton, deputy director of the district. "You have to remember that we're using a drainage system that was designed and built when society had different values than it has today."

The Army Corps of Engineers is working on replumbing the 18,000-square-mile area south of Orlando to help the environment. Fixing the system, estimated to cost $1-billion, will take a couple of decades. Until then, water managers must do a balancing act.

The water troubles were caused by heavy rain in September to end a wet summer. September rainfall was 25 percent above average.

Previously, the water district would have lowered Lake Okeechobee to prevent it from overflowing by pumping water into the coastal waters of Martin, Hendry and Lee counties.

This time, water managers are trying to release water more slowly into sensitive estuaries where fresh water and salt water meet. The grass beds in those areas, important nurseries for fish, could be wiped out by fresh water.