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Water, water everywhere, but is it enough?

Heavy rains are refilling lakes and rivers. But water officials warn that another dry spell could be on the way.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

Recent visitors to Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill have encountered a stunning sight when they look to the east at Lake Theresa: It actually looks like a lake.

Joe Barta of Lake-in-the-Woods comes to Delta Woods regularly for his children's soccer games and practices. When he left for vacation in late December, he said, the lake was mostly dry, just as it has been for most of the past three years.

When he returned earlier this month, "I looked down, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, there's a lake.' Sometime around Christmas it started to fill in."

Though some docks are still suspended several feet above the lake, the water is high enough to attract gulls and sandhill cranes, and it covers most of the grassy bottom. Rocks thrown by a 5-year-old from the shore fall into the water with a plop and disappear beneath the surface.

"There's water here. You can't walk across it any more," said Lisa Hansen of Spring Hill, another regular visitor.

The lake's resurgence tells the general story of all the county's water resources.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District's northern region, which includes Hernando, received 10 more inches of rain than normal in 2002. In Brooksville, the district's gauge recorded nearly 64 inches of rain, with more than 12 inches in December.

That has brought the region's groundwater levels to the middle of the normal range. The Withlacoochee River, which was little more than a dusty rut two years ago, has been near or above flood stage for the past several weeks.

And even the lakes, which are usually the first to show the effects of dry weather and the last to rebound, are noticeably fuller than they have been in recent years. Other than a few puddles and potholes, Lake Theresa has been dry since January 2000.

On the east side of the county, the story is similar. Lakes, though still not as high as they should be, are climbing.

Last week, the water level in Lake Lindsey, north of Brooksville, was 65.46 feet above sea level. That is more than a foot higher than a year ago, but still below the expected annual low, which is 66 feet.

The region's drought has been officially over since October 2001. But groundwater levels have not been as high as they are now since the last unusually wet winter, in 1997-98. The pattern of low rainfall that led to the three-year drought began almost immediately, said Michael Molligan, Swiftmud spokesman, which is why he said residents should continue to conserve water.

"We all know what happened after the last El Nino year," Molligan said, referring to the weather pattern responsible for the heavy winter rains.

During the drought, the district imposed once-a-week watering restrictions, which remain for the part of the district served by Tampa Bay Water, the utility that serves most of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Though the restrictions have been lifted for most of the rest of the district, tighter watering limits may return for Hernando residents for reasons only partly related to dry weather. During the spring dry season, residents typically increase water use to keep their lawns green, said Chuck Lewis, the county's utilities and franchise director.

That led to widespread reduction in water pressure last year in homes served by Florida Water Services and will almost certainly do so again this year unless the county limits the utility's customers to once-a-week pumping, he said.

"To me, this is a no-brainer," Lewis said. "I don't want 150 phone calls in a four-week period like we had last year" from people complaining about low water pressure.

"It was no fun," said Lewis, who will introduce the once-a-week restriction recommendation to the County Commission on Jan. 28.

The rains of the El Nino five years ago set most of the winter rainfall records in this part of Florida -- levels that have been approached again this year. That does not mean Florida residents can expect such wet winters to be a regular feature of the state's climate, said Frank Alsheimer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

El Nino, a pattern caused by unusually warm surface waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, "tend to cycle three to seven years, so this fits in pretty well with the normal cycle," Alsheimer said.

The pattern almost always brings some additional rainfall, but not usually as heavy as this year or five years ago. The strongest recorded El Nino, measured by the warmth of the ocean water, occurred in the winter of 1982-83, Alsheimer said.

Rainfall that year was above normal but not extremely heavy, he said.

One reason that residents may want to be especially cautious about water use, Alsheimer said, is that El Nino years are often followed by La Nina years, which usually bring dry weather to Florida.

And gradually drier weather -- at least gradually drier lakes -- seems to be the long-term trend in Florida, said Barta, who has lived in Hernando for 16 years.

Though Lake Theresa periodically rebounds, he said, it seems as though the dry periods have grown longer and the wet ones shorter. In the first few years he lived here, he said, the lake was full more or less continuously.

"It was a real lake then," he said.

-- Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to .

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