Tropical Storm Fay displays Florida weather extremes

Even as a two-year water shortage and rainfall deficit steadily dropped Lake Okeechobee's water level to an all-time record low of 8.82 feet on July 2, 2007, the South Florida Water Management District was strengthening its flood protection system with the largest single water control structure it has ever built. The new weir protecting the S-65E lock and spillway on the Kissimmee River was completed about two weeks before Tropical Storm Fay swept into South Florida...

• Two years of drought, one week of deluge underscore water management challenges

WEST PALM BEACH, FL, Aug. 27, 2008 -- Even as a two-year water shortage and rainfall deficit steadily dropped Lake Okeechobee's water level to an all-time record low of 8.82 feet on July 2, 2007, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) was strengthening its flood protection system with the largest single water control structure it has ever built.

The new weir protecting the S-65E lock and spillway on the Kissimmee River was completed about two weeks before Tropical Storm Fay swept into South Florida. The region's prolonged dry conditions, which led to 4,630 wildfires in 2007 and threatened water supplies for millions of people, had just begun to ease when the tropical storm dropped more than 14 inches of rain at some locations.

"We transitioned almost overnight from managing a water shortage to lowering canals for flood protection in advance of Tropical Storm Fay," said SFWMD Operations Director Susan Sylvester. "Florida's unpredictable weather requires continual balancing of those missions. Our systems again exhibited strong performance during the storm because of our continual preparation, maintenance and planning."

The District carried out pre-storm preparations by drawing down canals to make room for storing as much storm water as possible several days before Tropical Storm Fay hit. During the approximately six days Fay slowly spun across the state, the following data were recorded across the region:
• An average of 7.59 inches of rain fell throughout the District.
• Rainfall ranged from about 5 inches in parts of Miami-Dade County to more than 10 inches in the Caloosahatchee Basin and Hendry County.
• Lake Okeechobee rose more than 24 inches, to 13.63 feet as of Aug. 26, up from 11.34 feet on Aug. 19, as Fay began to impact the state.
• The lake rose more than two feet in a single week for the first time in recorded history, based on records dating back to 1931.
• The largest weekly rise prior to Fay was about 1.7 feet in October 1951.
• The largest weekly rise during the 2004 wet season was about 1.5 feet.

Stormwater runoff from Fay is still flowing into the 730-square-mile lake. The District remains in contact with and is providing data to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for managing the lake level.

Fay also swelled the rainfall total so far for the month of Aug. to 10.63 inches, approximately double the normal amount.

"This is only late August. September is peak hurricane season," said SFWMD meteorologist Geoff Shaughnessy. "And we're not even through the wet season."

The District's operations center and technical staff remain on alert and continue to prepare the flood protection system for potential summer storms. Another deluge on the heels of Fay would represent more water management challenges for the District. The sheer amount of rain from Fay in such a short period of time triggered localized flooding, which could be exacerbated by another storm.

The total amount of wet season rainfall remains uncertain. Consequently, water managers do not yet know how much water South Florida will have in the system to start the dry season in December. Based on records dating back to 1932, 2006 and 2007 were the driest back-to-back calendar years on record, creating a combined rainfall deficit of more than 20 inches.

For that reason, the District staff continues work on a year-round water conservation plan. Successfully fostering a strong ethic of conservation will protect South Florida's sensitive water resources and help ensure a more sustainable supply of water for both natural systems and people throughout the year.

The South Florida Water Management District is a regional, governmental agency that oversees the water resources in the southern half of the state -- 16 counties from Orlando to the Keys. It is the oldest and largest of the state's five water management districts.

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