(Jul 25, 2007)

Rains in Florida feed Lake Okeechobee

By Brian Skoloff
From AP

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - While South Florida's drought problems are far from over, summer rain has begun to replenish Lake Okeechobee in the heart of the Everglades after an 18-month dry spell led to severe restrictions, officials said Wednesday.

The lake, a backup drinking source for millions of residents, remains 4 feet below normal levels. But water resumed flowing into the lake last week with heavy rains in the Kissimmee River basin to the north. Water-use restrictions on homeowners and businesses were loosened two weeks ago.

It had been more than 250 days since water flowed south down the Kissimmee, depriving Lake Okeechobee of 50 percent of its water supply and dropping its level to record lows. The lake needs about another 5 feet of rain to return to normal levels.

The Army Corps of Engineers began allowing water to flow south from the Kissimmee River basin July 18. It continues to flow at a rate of about 97 million gallons a day, said John Zediak, chief of water management at the corps' Jacksonville district.

The releases are mainly being done for environmental purposes, to replenish dry sections of the river downstream, Zediak said. Lake Okeechobee could begin seeing water levels rise, but at a very minimal rate over the next three to four months, Zediak said.

The rise will likely be a matter of inches because of the lake's enormous size _ about 730 square miles. Parched land along the basin will also absorb water.

The Kissimmee River, a chain of lakes that begins near Orlando, has been broken into segments over the years for flood control, allowing water managers to hold or release water at various times. The water gates will remain open indefinitely while the rain continues, but water managers warn that the drought could continue into next year because of months of below average rainfall.

''I don't want to create too much optimism here,'' said William Graf of the South Florida Water Management District, noting that Lake Okeechobee will quickly absorb the water flowing in now.

Water could typically flow at five times its current rate during an average year, he said.

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