Water managers struggled this past week to keep up with record-setting rainfall, and were eventually forced to back pump polluted water into environmentally sensitive Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding in the Glades.
More than 5 inches of rain fell during two days in West Palm Beach and as much as 6 inches inundated some western communities. By the end of the deluge Thursday, this past month was deemed the wettest January since recordkeeping began in 1932.
A statement from the South Florida Water Management District and letters from two board members stressed the necessity of the undesirable back pumping, saying “options are limited with water storage areas already full.”
“After an already wet start to the winter, January has brought more than 9 inches of rain across South Florida,” wrote Kevin Powers, vice-chairman of the district’s governing board. “That’s five times the historic average and more than any single month in the 2015 rainy season.”
The back-pumping began on Jan. 27 to protect areas of Belle Glade and South Bay from flooding. It ended Sunday.
Back pumping, which dumps stormwater into Lake Okeechobee without any cleaning to reduce fertilizer and other pollutants, is allowed solely for flood control purposes under emergency conditions that are defined in a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Lake Okeechobee, said water levels in the lake rose 3 inches in 24 hours. It announced Friday it was increasing the amount of water released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries — also an unwelcome measure that can cause algae blooms and harm sea life.
Meteorologists predicted South Florida would have a wetter and a stormier winter this year because of the incredibly powerful El Niñ o, which isn’t expected to dissipate until spring to early summer. The Climate Prediction Center is expecting abnormally high rainfall through at least April.
Thomas Van Lent, a hydrologist and vice president for programs at the Everglades Foundation, said despite the harmful impacts of back-pumping, it was the only option the district had to protect from flooding.
“I’m not going to second guess whether this was the right time for these discharges,” Van Lent said. “But they are extremely damaging, and our position is we need to start building the projects that will restore the Everglades and fix these very serious water problems.”