tampabay.com

Rain is in forecast for this weekend

Unfortunately, it won't be enough to end the drought.

By MELANIE AVE
Published May 31, 2007


Rain -- beautiful, quenching, elusive rain -- is expected for the Tampa Bay area this weekend, which could bring some temporary relief to crispy lawns and wilting flowers.

But don't stop the rain dances, chants and prayers just yet.

Forecasters say the two weather systems that will merge over the Gulf of Mexico, possibly as early as Friday, will unload from 3/4- to 1 1/2-inches of rain.

That's not enough to put much of a dent in the continuing drought that is parching most of Florida.

"While completely welcome, we need a whole lot more of it," said Robyn Hanke, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which regulates water use for a 16-county region and instituted once-a-week watering restrictions in January.

"We've been saying it for a while, but what we really, really, really need is an above average rainfall this summer."

Since January 2006, Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties have received about 50 inches of rain, 17 inches below normal.

Throughout the area, grass is dying and ponds are sinking.

An upper level system should form in the south to central gulf during the next couple of days and should migrate to the east or northeast Friday or Saturday, weather officials say. It could join with another system dropping down from the Mississippi River Valley.

"We'll get moisture from the south and the trough from the north," said Ernie Jillson, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "Wherever those two merge is where the favorable rainfall will be."

This isn't the start of the annual rainy season, however. That usually begins a little later in June.

Friday's forecast calls for a 30 to 40 percent chance of scattered showers and thunderstorms with highs in the upper 80s.

Rain chances double to 60 to 70 percent for Saturday, with temperatures in the mid 80s. The rain should taper off by Sunday. It would be the area's first rain since May 14, when a trace was recorded.

Rainfall is especially needed in South Florida, where rain levels are at half the normal. Water levels at Lake Okeechobee tied a historic low Wednesday.

The 730-square-mile lake measured 8.97 feet above sea level, matching a previous record set during the 2001 drought. Normally at this time of year it is 14 to 15 feet.

The lake is the primary water source for 50,000 area homes and serves as the backup water supply for 7-million households in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

"The dilemma for us is when the water gets as low as it is, there's no significant water for backup for the urban areas," said Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. "It renders the backup system useless."

In Tampa, water department spokesman Elias Franco seemed stunned to hear news of a forecast that included rain.

"I don't believe it," he said, half-jokingly.

The city of Tampa has been buying water from Tampa Bay Water since late last year because of low levels in the Hillsborough River, the city's primary source of drinking water.

Any rain is needed, Franco said, but it will not help much in the long run.

"We are so in arrears right now," he said. "It's really not going to make an impact or change any conditions we're wrestling with. Even a normal rainy season will put us behind for next year."

Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or 727 893-8813.