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Parched earth

Published May 5, 2006

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Along Lumsden Road in Brandon, drainage ditches that are usually full of water have gone so dry this spring that the soil is cracking.

Demand for water in the Tampa Bay area has hit unprecedented levels as residents struggle to keep their lawns green despite the lack of rain.

"We're seeing demand in the region that's as high as it's ever been, and it's early for it," Dave Bracciano of the region's wholesale utility, Tampa Bay Water, said Thursday.

The utility - which supplies water to customers in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties - had expected demand last month to be 182-million gallons a day. Instead, it hit 223-million, an increase of more than 22 percent.

The region's booming growth has fueled the higher demand, Bracciano said. In Pasco, for instance, the utility had expected the demand in April to be 23-million gallons a day. Instead, it was 30.3-million, 32 percent higher.

Hillsborough County has been particularly thirsty. Demand there surpassed demand in Pinellas County four times in April - a first.

The Tampa City Council unanimously approved once-a-week watering restrictions Thursday. And on Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners took the first step toward the imposing once-a-week restrictions on rural and suburban property owners.

Still, utility officials say they aren't likely to run out of water any time soon, thanks to the 15-billion gallon reservoir that opened just over six months ago.

Tampa Bay Water has been tapping the reservoir regularly, but the supply is only down to 121/2-billion gallons.

There's still a month to go in the dry season. The last heavy rain to hit the region occurred in February. None is expected until the start of hurricane season in June, forecasters say.

A high-pressure system is causing dry weather throughout the Southeast, said meteorologist Anthony Reynes of the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

"At some point, the high pressure will ease and sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico will return, combining for more thunderstorms," he said.

For now, though, most of Florida remains under a red flag warning, meaning the risk of wildfire is high because of low relative humidity or a combination of low humidity and strong winds.

--Times staff writers Pat Farnan and Janet Zink contributed to this story.

[Last modified May 5, 2006, 02:39:49]

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