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WATER MANAGERS CONSIDER CONTROVERSIAL OKEECHOBEE PLAN

With Lake Okeechobee still way below normal, water managers are considering pumping in pollution-laden water to help boost South Florida's key backup water supply.

While that helps sugar cane and other growers who tap the lake for irrigation, environmentalists warn that it could lead to fish kills and threaten drinking water supplies.

District officials say they don't want to harm the health of the lake, but also have to consider ways to save water that falls during the remainder of the summer rainy season in order to prepare for drought conditions that are expected to intensify next year.

"There is a window of opportunity (that) you have to think about," district spokesman Jesus Rodriguez said. "Right now the lake level is the lowest it has ever been this time of year."

So far, summer rains that turned much of South Florida green again have not been enough to lift Lake Okeechobee out of a drought that resulted from 18 months of below-normal rainfall.

Lake levels also suffered from decisions last year by the Army Corps of Engineers, with the support of the district, to lower the lake in anticipation of hurricanes that never materialized.

On July 3, the lake hit its all-time low of 8.82 feet above sea level.

The lake needs to climb back to at least 12.5 feet by November to be considered back at normal, Rodriguez said.

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