Drought parches earth, tries patience

Parched lakebeds. Crisped lawns. Officials are now concerned.

Published May 17, 2007

Ryan Morse tried to keep his grass alive. He really did.

But this week, fed up with the two-year struggle, in the middle of a drought, four months into mandatory once-a-week watering restrictions, the 34-year-old financial adviser gave up.

His green is gone. Four workers with Gator Tail Landscape ripped the front lawn from his north St. Petersburg front lawn, tore out the sprinklers and replaced it with a driveway and hardy palms.

"This will be much nicer and much less expensive," Morse said, smoking a cigarette and surveying his new yard from the porch on Monday.

Welcome to Florida, Drought State.

From bone-dry lake beds in Brooksville to the drying rough at St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course golf courses to flea infestations just about everywhere to receding water on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa, the drought is finally hitting home around Tampa Bay.

The area's average rainfall deficit for the year is 4 to 7 inches, and it shows.

"It's definitely very dry," said Robyn Hanke, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees water use for about 4-million people in 16 west central counties including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. The district began watering restrictions in January.

"We're definitely very concerned."

Northern and southern parts of the state are in an extreme drought, while the Tampa Bay area is in a moderate drought, with most areas receiving 25 to 50 percent of normal rainfall amounts since November.

Wildfires in north Florida, which sent a blanket of smoke to Tampa Bay last week, are an extreme example of the drought, which is affecting more than 80 percent of the state.

But more subtle signs abound.

Parched highway medians are turning brown and retention ponds are cracking up instead of filling up.

Some sod companies say business has slowed, while Clearwater's McDonald Pest Control said their phones are ringing off the hook from people complaining of flea infestations.

"Fleas thrive in an arid environment," said company owner Patrick McDonald.

Thirsty cockroaches are also on the move, heading indoors in their hunt for water, said Phil Koehler, professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida.

In Tampa, high demand and low water levels in the Hillsborough River, the city's primary source of drinking water, has led the city to buy 30-million to 40-million gallons of water a day from Tampa Bay Water for the past eight weeks.

That's unprecedented, said Tampa water department spokesman Elias Franco.

"Just a lot of demands all converging around the same time have put quite a demand on the system," he said.

In April, Tampa asked water customers to be judicious when using water for cooking, bathing and flushing toilets, and Tampa has been on once-a-week watering restrictions since last spring.

So some homeowner associations in deed-restricted communities, like Pebble Creek in Hillsborough County, are easing up on citations for dead grass.

The Hillsborough County water department cut off the reclaimed water supply to five golf courses in the northwest because of high demand.

"There's no replacement for good, regular rainfall," said Clay Thomas, general manager of the 18-hole, 200-acre Westchase Golf Course, one of the water-restricted courses. "The drought really exposes areas where your irrigation system is incomplete."

While the drought is not as bad as the one in 2000-2001, meteorologists say current rainfall amounts are worrisome.

By this time last year, Tampa received 12 inches of rain. So far this year: 6.39 inches.

Enforcement of illegal sprinkling is up in some communities as a result of the torrid conditions and neighbors snitching on neighbors.

Hillsborough is writing about 400 tickets a month, compared with 300 before water restrictions began in December.

In St. Petersburg, warnings have nearly doubled since March, said Patti Anderson, water resources director.

Her department wrote about 200 warnings in March and 340 in April. She expects between 500 and 600 by the end of May.

To encourage water conservation, Tampa inspectors moved from warnings to violations last spring.

As the maple trees wilt and lawns blister, expectations for the annual rainy season soar.

"We're counting on the summer rainy season to be very active," said Anthony Reynes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "We need it."

Conditions are expected to improve through July, but the drought will likely continue, the Weather Service says.

That's not good news for Hernando parks and recreation director Pat Fagan, who hopes the summer rainy season, which typically begins in late May or June, will help.

He is holding off replacing dying grass at county athletic fields until the rains begin.

"Our landscaping throughout the county is in desperate need of watering," Fagan said. "It's affecting us big time. It's doing a lot of havoc."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Bill Coats and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.



Water-saving tips

1. Water in the morning to reduce evaporation.

2. Run washers and dishwashers only when full.

3. Raise lawn mower blade to its highest setting to encourage grass roots to grow deeper and grass blades to hold moisture longer.

4. Install low-flow shower heads and keep showers to 5 minutes or less.

5. Landscape with drought tolerant plants.

Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District.