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Rain lost to sea as Lake Okeechobee shrivels

Stranded near Slim’s Fish Camp on Torry Island in Belle Glade, Fla.

Even amid a record-breaking drought, water managers' floodgates from Fort Pierce to Boca Raton dumped roughly 250 billion gallons of coastal runoff out to sea during this year's hurricane season. Water managers say they had no choice. The region's decades-old drainage network left them no place else to put so much runoff without flooding the densely developed coast, they say. And they had no practical way to move the water to drought-shriveled Lake Okeechobee. "It breaks my heart. I get frustrated like everybody else. You know you're going to need that water." The squandered quarter-trillion gallons would be enough to fill Dolphin Stadium more than 500 times, supply Palm Beach County's water customers for more than a decade or submerge the city of Stuart about 100 feet deep. It includes rain that sloshed off roofs, streets and parking lots from June 1 to Nov. 30, into drains and canals that aim for the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. The lost runoff is also equivalent to about 2 feet of water in the shrunken lake, the region's main backup reservoir. The lake hit an all-time low in July, and water managers say it COULD PLUNGE TO LEVELS NEVER BEFORE RECORDED in the next few months. To meet the shortfall, the district is taking the UNPRECEDENTED step of limiting lawn and landscape watering to one day a week throughout almost all of its 16 counties. The limits take effect Jan. 15. "The only answer is to be able to store more water." But efforts to do that have been slow, despite a $10.9 billion Everglades restoration plan that includes proposals to capture wasted runoff. Since Jan. 1, Palm Beach International Airport has received more than 63 inches of rain - about 70 percent more than notoriously drizzly Seattle. Some rain has arrived in blinding downpours, including one day in October when almost 7 inches fell at a coastal gauge just south of West Palm Beach. When rain falls so heavily, the district's priorities shift to flood control. Its canals flow downhill, and most lack pumps that could send water inland. Most also have no direct link to the lake. The district is keeping water in its canals higher than usual. But that increases the risk of floods in a freak downpour.


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