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Keeping an eye on the water

Drought won't end soon: Meteorologists say rain will come, but don't know when.

By STEPHANIE GARRY
Published May 25, 2007


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The quickest remedy to Tampa Bay area's water woes: a tropical storm. Short of that, the area would need an early blast from the summer storm season to offer any relief.

Forecasters know the rains will come, but can't say when.

So, in the meantime, already tight water restrictions could get tighter.

"We're not wishing for hurricanes certainly ... but we really need a lot of rainfall this summer to try to catch up," said Michael Molligan, a spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.

On Thursday, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson warned Memorial Day revelers about arid, windy conditions. Water cops have been handing out hundreds of tickets to people breaking water restrictions. And local governments are considering more drastic measures.

Pinellas County Utilities, for example, has issued warnings to 19,000 customers in the southern part of the county that it may shut down the supply of reclaimed water from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day as early as this weekend if use doesn't drop off during those hours. Amid the water rationing, more residents have been relying on reclaimed water and putting a dent in storage.

"We need to do something quickly," said Todd Tanberg, director of alternate water resources for Pinellas County Utilities. "The need is immediate."

On Thursday, the Tampa City Council considered jettisoning customers who live outside city limits as a way to conserve. No decision was made.

Lack of rainfall, drought conditions and an uptick in demand have taken a toll on Tampa's main water supply, the Hillsborough River Reservoir.

During a recent week the city paid $472,000 to Tampa Bay Water for 200-million gallons of water to supplement its own supply.

Swiftmud has cracked down on lawn watering since January with restrictions that will last at least until July 31. Molligan said the date was chosen because the district expects the summer rains to lessen the drought by then.

Jennifer Colson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said next week could bring thunderstorms and as much as a half inch of rain, but that will make little difference when total rainfall this year is 6.4 inches, about 5 inches less than normal.

"Our dry season is during spring anyway," Colson said. "We've had a very dry spring."

The normal summer storm cycle occurs when a high pressure system, called the Bermuda High, settles in its normal spot in the west-central Atlantic. It brings easterly winds from the Atlantic Ocean that clash with cooler sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, creating thunderstorms.

But figuring out where the high pressure will settle and how much rain the season will bring is as speculative as hurricane predictions.

"If we could forecast that in May, we'd be wizards," said Barry Goldsmith, also a meteorologist at the National Weather Service

He said the drought has been developing for more than a year, since Hurricane Ophelia sauntered up the Carolina coast and spread a track of dry air across Florida in 2005. The summer of 2006, when no hurricanes made landfall in the United States, was even drier.

"When you build up a year and half like we have, you have to recover in a year and a half," Goldsmith said.

Times staff writer Kevin Graham and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at 727 892-2374 and at sgarry@sptimes.com.

[Last modified May 25, 2007, 01:03:13]


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