OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – Two tropical storms and two months of normal to above-average rainfall are restoring Florida's lawns to green and feeding life back into drought-sapped lakes and streams.
But despite the rainfall, state officials say drinking water supplies still haven't recovered from four years of dryness and the water restrictions in central and south Florida will have to continue.
"We're paying the bills right now," said Michael Molligan of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "We've had enough rain coming down to meet our needs. But we still have that big debt to pay off."
The drought has forced homeowners from Orlando to Key West to cut back lawn watering and car washing, and it has damaged crops and hurt fishing at Lake Okeechobee, also a primary water source for surrounding farms and towns.
The Florida drought is over in terms of agriculture and wildfire threats, said Douglas LeComte, a senior meteorologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Predication Center. But it will take months of rain to restore the state's drinking water supplies to normal, meteorologists say.
An underground aquifer that is a main source of drinking water remains depleted in the Orlando and Tampa areas.
And while Lake Okeechobee, a 730 square mile freshwater lake known for its fish and wildlife, has risen 2 feet in the past month to 11.26 feet above sea level, its still 2 feet below normal.
The lake's rise was enough for fishing guide Greg MacLean to take a bass angler out on Okeechobee for the first time in 10 months. He hopes the lake level is above 13 feet by September, when bass fishing tournaments start. Tournaments had to be canceled last year because the water was so low, boats got stuck in the mud.
"I'm scared it's going to stop raining," said MacLean's wife, Karen.
Bubba Helton, who owns a bait and tackle shop on the lake's northern end, said snowbirds from the Midwest and East Coast states who left early this year are still wary about the lake level and have been calling to ask if they should make reservations.
Helton tries to reassure them. "We're catching everything right now," he said.
Beyond the needs of its fishing and tourism industries, Okeechobee's health is vital to irrigation and as the backup water supply for Florida's populated lower east coast.
The area just recorded it's wettest July since 1941, but the lake level was still far enough below normal for the South Florida Water Management to keep water-use restrictions in place for its 16 counties.
Officials say continuing the watering ban shouldn't burden residents during the wet months from June to November.
But Judy Strickland of Palm City, north of West Palm Beach, said it's time the restrictions were lifted so her family can wash their trucks at their convenience.
She has seen enough water in the last two weeks: Her garage was flooded during last week's tropical wave that developed into Barry, ruining a couch, refrigerator, clothes and her husband's construction tools.
"I think that they're too strict," she said. "It rains every year, no matter what."