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Rains resuscitate Lake Okeechobee

At the start of the dry season, Lake Okeechobee is almost 15 feet above sea level and thriving with sport fish, birds and more vegetation than has been seen in decades.

The recent drought caused the huge lake to fall to a historic low in May. The reservoir has risen 6 feet thanks to a wetter-than-normal rainy season that ended in October. Climatologists predict this year's dry season that runs until June will be average.

The lake was 14.95 feet above sea level Friday.

"We're seeing a definite increase in the amount of boat traffic," said Greg McLean, owner of Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters. "The word has gotten out that the water is up and the fishing has increased."

But environmentalists say there's a down side to the rapid rise of the lake, a vital ecosystem for fish and wildlife. They worry the lake filled up too fast and drowned aquatic plants that grew during the low levels because they could receive sunlight.

"You have to go back to the early '70s to find the habitat looking this good," state biologist Don Fox said Friday. "It'd be a shame to lose all that."

Fox said water managers could have put the brakes on the rising levels by releasing some water into the estuaries. He said the aquatic plants may survive if there aren't any late tropical storms, but biologists won't know until the spring.

"If we can get through this winter and keep these plants alive, fishing is going to be phenomenal in two to three years," Fox said.

Largemouth bass and other game fish spawn in the indigenous grasses such as eelgrass and peppergrass. Birds use the grass for food.

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