As more storms loom, Florida tries to make room for more water

The dike overlooking Lake Okeechobee in Port Mayaca on Friday.  [Jason Henry | The New York Times]
The dike overlooking Lake Okeechobee in Port Mayaca on Friday. [Jason Henry | The New York Times]
Published Sep. 14, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — With two new tropical depressions forming in the Atlantic and Gov. Rick Scott worried about another hurricane, Florida water managers worked on all fronts Thursday to lower water levels in Lake Okeechobee and surrounding canals to avoid the possibility of more flooding.

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would "release as much water as practical" through the spillway at Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on the east side of the lake starting Friday, and begin releases from the lake to the Caloosahatchee Estuary "as soon as capacity exists downstream."

"With so much of hurricane season remaining, we want to slow the rise to the extent possible so we retain storage for future events," said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander in a statement.

The prospect of another massive rain event that could threaten the fragile Herbert Hoover dike and lead to flooding has Scott worried.

As Hurricane Irma approached, water managers gradually lowered the water levels in the dike and avoided flooding there. But, as the runoff from the storm swamps wetlands, canals and the lake's recharge areas, flooding remains a threat.

"What I'm really worried about is the dike," Scott told reporters in Marathon on Wednesday, while touring the Keys. "We get the level of the dike down during hurricane season. The concern now is it might get up to 17 [feet] with all this rain ... I'm worried about another hurricane."

"The lake has risen rapidly over the past week," Kirk said. "With projected inflows, Lake O will rise to around 17 feet."

Lake Okeechobee measured at 14.83 feet on Thursday and was rising, Kirk said. So far this month, more than 10 inches of rain have fallen in the region. about six inches more than normal. The release of water "will help stem that rise, though it will not stop it."

Meanwhile, water managers also continued working to lower levels and ease flooding in the 16 South Florida counties hit by Hurricane Irma. In southern Miami-Dade County, the district is pumping waters into the C-4 Retention Basin, which is used to store water and provide flood protection for residents and businesses in the Sweetwater and West Miami areas.

Water management crews began installing three, 42-inch temporary pumps to assist in lowering levels in the Big Cypress Basin where canals are flowing at maximum capacity. Two similar pumps will be installed in Polk County to help lower water levels in Lake Rosalie.

On the Treasure Coast, the district has begun pumping water into the recently completed Ten Mile Creek Water Preserve Area in northern St. Lucie County in an effort to lower water levels in the creek and help mitigate flooding near the intersection of State Road 70 and Florida's Turnpike west of Fort Pierce.

Along the East Coast, most canal levels have receded and water managers expect to be able to resume normal operations by the end of the week, the district said.

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas