Suddenly, the question is no longer how low Lake Okeechobee will go, but how high.
The Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday it intends next week to start slowly draining water as a precaution to protect the lake's vulnerable and aging levee.
The big lake continued on a record rise and was on pace to hit 14 feet Thursday or Friday -- only inches below its historic average and still three feet short of the danger zone where risk of levee leaks, erosion and potentially catastrophic breaches sharply rise.
But the Corps predicts the vast lake could continue climbing for at least another week to nearly 15 feet above sea level. And another storm could quickly raise the risks of levee failure and flooding across the rest of saturated South Florida.
''We're still not at the peak of hurricane season,'' said John Zediak, chief of the water management section for the Corps' Jacksonville district.
The rise in Lake Okeechobee, the heart of a water supply system for five million people in South Florida, has been stunning -- the fastest one-week climb in 77 years of record-keeping. Water levels in the lake, locked in historic lows for nearly two years, have shot up more than 2.5 feet in the week since Tropical Storm Fay struck near Marco Island, shattering a climb of 1.7 feet in 1951.
''The lake rise we have seen with this storm is something we have never recorded before,'' said George Horne, deputy executive director for operations and maintenance for the South Florida Water Management District.
While inflows from the Kissimmee River basin to the north have slowed, Horne said, "There is still a lot of rain out there. Along the Kissimmee, there is ponding everywhere you look in fields and along roads.''
Miami-Dade and Broward are in ''decent shape,'' Horne said, but it could take weeks for much of the rest of the district, which covers a region as far north as Orlando, to absorb Fay's runoff.
And with water conservation areas of the Everglades and storm water treatment areas also running high, there simply isn't any place to pump potential flood waters, he said.
In fact, Lake Okeechobee's two main relief valves -- the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie canal to the east -- are still too swollen with local storm runoff to release lake water without flooding communities downstream.
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