No relief in sight as region dries up

Published April 4, 2007

Day after day this winter, Gordon Mosteller has watched the water level drop 2 feet in Strawberry and Crystal lakes outside his house in Lutz.

The canal connecting them is bone dry, too.

"Our lake is not a spring-fed lake," he said apologetically. "It depends entirely on rainwater to keep it full."

The rain hasn't come this year, not just to Lutz's lakes. The whole Tampa Bay region is dry, with some parts receiving less than half the normal rainfall.

Forecasters blame a high-pressure system, which diverted the rains normally associated with El Nino and kept southwest Florida largely dry.

Rivers are running below normal, and the forest fire index keeps growing. Water restrictions - which the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, recommended in January - have caused lawns to wilt.

With only a quarter-inch of rain predicted in the next week, the forecast holds no relief for the parched region.

"Keep in mind that we're also going into the dry season," said Nick Petro, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "It is going to get worse before it gets better."

In South Florida, water management officials ranked this as the third worst dry season on record.

In west central Florida, it is the 15th worst in the last century, according to Granville Kinsman, manager of the district's hydrologic data section.

"We probably need above normal rainfall throughout the summer to make an improvement," Kinsman said. "We are not at the same stage as we were back in the really bad drought in 2001. What I've been telling people is to me the signals look like the year prior to that. Things are getting bad, but we're not really in the heart of it."

So how dry is it? Rain gauges tell part of the story.

In Tarpon Springs, a National Weather Service gauge measured 5.6 inches from November to March, about a third of normal.

A gauge at Tampa International Airport showed just over 4 inches from Jan. 1 through April 1, about half what it should be.

In Tampa, the rainfall shortage is forcing the city to buy water.

The city gets most of its water from a reservoir on the Hillsborough River. But demand is beyond the permitted withdrawal of 80-million gallons a day. Tampa turned to Tampa Bay Water to boost supply.

That's costing the city about $66,000 a day and could top more than $9-million over the dry season, said Sandra Anderson, deputy director of the Tampa Water Department.

No water has flowed over the Hillsborough River dam since October. Last year, water flowed over the dam until March.

The fire danger is up throughout the region, too.

On Tuesday afternoon, a brush fire broke out near the Plant City Municipal Airport in eastern Hillsborough County, burning 5 acres.

Forestry crews and local firefighters were positioned on the perimeter, waiting for it to burn itself out, said Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley.

With dry conditions and strong winds, "a little fire can become big quickly," Yeakley said, so firefighters take extra precaution this time of year.

Chris Kintner, a spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry, said that without rain the fire danger would go up later this spring when the lightning strikes arrive.

"We expect to have a very serious fire season," she said.

Staff writers Janet Zink, Ben Montgomery and Bill Coats contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com.