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U.S. Army Corps Warns Lake Okeechobee Could Rise By 10 Inches As Eta Crosses South Florida

11-8 Tropical Storm Eta

Lake Okeechobee could rise by as much as 10 inches as a very wet and messy Eta moves over South Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned Friday.
That much water could push lake levels over 17 feet, a level the Corps had hoped to avoid when it began releasing polluted lake water into the Caloosa and St. Lucie rivers last month.
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As water rises, dike inspections will increase, said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville District. But he doesn’t expect high water to trigger evacuations, which are normally prompted by high winds driving water. The 1940s-era dike is nearing the completion of $1.7 billion in repairs expected to be finished in 2022.

“Certainly we are in a different position now than we were in the Irma timeline,” Kelly said, referring to evacuations ordered before Hurricane Irma spread hurricane and tropical storm force winds across much of the state in September 2017.

The Corps has been wrestling with high water across South Florida in recent weeks as heavy rain saturated the region. In addition to releases from the lake, the sprawling water conservation area west of Broward and Miami-Dade counties is now about a foot too high, Kelly said.

Last week the Corps took emergency steps to lower water in the conservation area by moving it to the southwest, keeping gates open along the Tamiami Trail and Everglades National Park that normally close in November to protect endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow nesting season.

The high water has also submerged parts of the Las Palmas neighborhood west of the Redland. The neighborhood regularly battles flooding and was flooded for nearly two months after Irma. It’s also been a sticking point in Everglades restoration, because moving water to the eastern side of the park and into Taylor Slough could worsen flooding.

“I’m sitting on my porch and the only thing that doesn’t have any water is my porch,” Raul Arrazaeta said last month, after another rain flooded his yard. “The only thing I need is pink flamingos.”

Kelly said Friday the Corps has avoided pumping into the far western suburb to try to reduce flooding. But the larger conservation area to the north remains high.

“Every single drop of water we can get out of there is good right now. So we were able to start flows through the emergency deviation,” he said. “But we really won't be able to tell the effects in total until the rain event happens.”

The Corps will also cease pumping water from the lake south, he said, to give farm fields a chance to dry out.

That's the strategy right now,” he said. “To continue to flow water from [the conservation area] as best we can to to allow some of the [Everglades Agricultural] Area and other areas to dry out kind of ahead of this rainfall event.”

How long the releases continue depends on how quickly the dry season arrives. The season typically begins in mid-October. But depending on rainfall, temperatures and dewpoint, it can arrive later. The latest arrival on record is Nov. 1.

Kelly said the Corps is also keeping an eye on this year’s La Niña weather pattern, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave a high chance of persisting through December.

La Niña’s can worsen hurricane season but lead to less rain during the dry season.

“We'll take a look at when the wet season ends and then we will kind of switch our mindset to how to manage the dry season,” Kelly said “Then we’ve got to figure out a longterm solution for how to manage the dry season.”
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Flooding left most of Raul Arrazaeta's Las Palmas yard underwater last month.
Raul Arrazaeta /
Flooding left most of Raul Arrazaeta's Las Palmas yard underwater last month.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.
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