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    Water, water everywhere but well fields

    Retention ponds and swamps are filling up as summer rains thrash North Pinellas. But overworked well fields in the area are still low, officials say.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 20, 2002


    Throughout North Pinellas, yards are soaked and retention ponds are brimming. Even swamps that disappeared from the Brooker Creek Preserve several years ago are back.

    That's because the summer thunderstorms have drenched the area from Largo to Tarpon Springs in a big way the past two months.

    The rain has been heaviest north of Curlew Road.

    In Oldsmar, residents had been getting less than 3 inches of rain a month since January. But in June and July, one location in the city was sloshed with 14.32 and 15.66 inches of rain, respectively.

    "June and July have been big months for us," said John Mulvihill, Oldsmar's Public Works director. "Most people should not have had to water their lawn in the last two months. There really was no reason to, not with 15 inches of rain a month."

    Tarpon Springs has gotten about 7 inches of rain more than normal during those two months, according to the National Weather Service. Some areas farther south in Pinellas gotten about normal or slightly below normal amounts of rain during the same time period.

    "Northern Pinellas is definitely above normal," said Paul Close, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "That northern part is showing a lot of precipitation."

    At the 8,500-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in East Lake, the summer thunderstorms have caused water levels to return to normal, said Craig Huegel, Pinellas environmental lands division administrator. Not since the El Nino storms brought record rains in the late 1990s has the preserve had this much water, he said.

    "The years following El Nino have all been below normal in terms of how much water we were carrying in our swamps," Huegel said. "It's pretty safe to say that we are back to our normal levels.

    County officials even had trouble starting controlled burns at the preserve because conditions were so wet, the flame kept going out. Some areas also were so filled with water, Huegel said, that officials feared vehicles would get stuck.

    These days, a weekend hike at the preserve could mean "you will get water up to your knees again" in some low spots, Huegel said. "In the wetland and ponds, things are wet like they are supposed to be."

    The recent rains have helped the aquifer levels throughout Tampa Bay. Downpours in June and July have raised the aquifer beneath Pasco, northern Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to 2.94 feet above the minimum healthy level. That's 31/2 feet above readings taken last year at this time.

    But officials warn that the aquifer levels around the well fields in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas that supply water to most of the Tampa Bay region are still low from years of drought and excessive pumping, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

    "Outside of the well fields, the aquifer is in the normal range," water district spokesman Michael Molligan said. "Around the well fields, they are still very low. They still haven't recovered."

    The typical formula for thunderstorms has been working overtime in North Pinellas.

    The daytime heat and high humidity get a boost from seabreezes and afternoon wind, which cause the hot air to rise. As the air rises, it cools and condenses into storm clouds.

    "As the clouds keep growing, they eventually turn into thunderstorms," Close said.

    North Pinellas residents can expect much of the same weather for this week, Close said. Expect scattered daily afternoon and evening showers, as every day has a 40 to 50 percent chance of rain.

    "It's nice to see things back to being wet like they are supposed to be," Huegel said.

    -- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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