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Experts predict serious drought
The water district extends restrictions in its 16 counties through June.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 27, 2007
[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Despite statewide concern, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties are in comparatively good shape, water managers say. Tampa Bay Water's 15-billion-gallon reservoir near Fort Lonesome, which four months ago had been drained down to just 2-billion gallons, now contains more than 11-billion gallons.
TAMPA - As Florida's dry season begins this week, the drought plaguing the state is expected to get worse, bringing with it dried-up lakes, crunchier lawns and tighter watering restrictions.
"The conditions are very serious, and we expect it to get worse in the spring," Southwest Florida Water Management District spokesman Mike Molligan said Monday. "We're looking at a very serious drought ahead."
If the experts are right, he said, Florida could be facing a drought as bad as the one that lasted from 2000 to 2001, when municipal wells dried up, rivers dwindled to a trickle and fires scorched some 400,000 acres statewide.
The signs are everywhere. Lake Okeechobee, the backup drinking water source for more than 5-million South Florida residents, is 5 feet below normal. Farmers and golf courses in South Florida have been told to use only 45 percent of their usual irrigation amounts.
In the Green Swamp, the headwaters for the Withlacoochee, Hillsborough and Peace rivers, rainfall for the past year was nearly 10 inches below normal.
And in Sarasota and Charlotte counties - which get their water from the Peace River - there's only enough for the next 100 days.
"I hear alarm bells," said Sallie Parks, a board member of the water district commonly known as Swiftmud.
Water district executive director David Moore said he will meet with county officials this week to help the Peace River-Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority get some emergency supplies from Manatee County. Meanwhile, though, there is talk of imposing a "drought surcharge" to discourage consumption.
Since January the water district board, which oversees Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and 12 other counties, has been limiting watering to just one day a week. Restrictions were to expire this week. Instead, the board voted Monday to extend them through June.
If the drought continues to worsen, the district could impose even tougher restrictions.
Stepped-up water restrictions could include cutbacks in the hours when watering is allowed, as well as tighter limits on golf course and agriculture water use. For now the agency is encouraging residents and businesses to voluntarily water landscaping every other week, instead of every week, during the winter months.
In 2004 and 2005, a series of hurricanes dumped a record amount of rain on the state - but then the skies dried up. Across Swiftmud's 16 counties since November 2005, the rainfall has been more than 20 inches below normal. The reason: Various weather conditions have kept hurricanes away from Florida, keeping the state too dry, even during the normally rainy summer.
And now La Nina could prolong the drought. The opposite of the rainy El Nino weather pattern, La Nina occurs when unusually cold water in the Pacific Ocean impedes the formation of clouds above the surface, so that winds blowing across the ocean carry less moisture to the southern United States.
"We needed above-normal rainfall" to catch up on last year's deficit, said Granville Kinsman, who is in charge of collecting hydrological data for the water district. "We didn't get it. And La Nina is expected to extend this drought until the summer."
In the meantime, though, Swiftmud has continued approving permits for new development and renewing permits for big water users. For instance, right before extending the watering restrictions, the board voted to allow Progress Energy to continue using 1-million gallons a day at its Crystal River nuclear plant.
Before the vote to extend the restrictions, two speakers urged the district to consider taking even tougher steps now, such as banning all outdoor watering and halting the approval of water-use permits for new development.
"It's time to send a message," said one of the speakers, Octavio Blanco, a Lutz veterinarian who has frequently battled Swiftmud over development that threatened wetlands on his ranch.
But water district officials say dealing with the drought is a short-term problem while approving new development is a long-term issue, and thus the current water shortage is not a reason to deny permits.
Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties are in comparatively good shape, water managers say. Tampa Bay Water's 15-billion-gallon reservoir near Fort Lonesome, which four months ago had been drained down to just 2-billion gallons, now contains more than 11-billion gallons, with a recent infusion of water from the Alafia River and the Tampa Bypass Canal. That will help Tampa Bay Water meet the 260-million-gallon-a-day demand from its 2.4-million consumers between now and summer.
The utility is "likely to start any day now" tapping the reservoir's supply, said Tampa Bay Water senior manager Alison Adams.
Help may arrive from a long-awaited source. This month a troubled desalination plant completed its crucial test to see if it will at last work correctly, turning salty water from the bay into 25-million gallons of drinkable freshwater every day, according to the utility's general manager, Jerry Maxwell.
"The plant is performing really exactly as we had hoped it would," Maxwell told a rare joint meeting of the utility and the water district board.
The Apollo Beach plant, the largest in the country, underwent the test in 2003 but failed. As a result, it is four years behind schedule. Getting the plant to the point of taking the test again required spending nearly $30-million in repairs.
Current Southwest Florida Water Management District watering restrictions (some cities and counties have different restrictions):
Watering days: One day a week (house numbers ending with 0 and 1 on Monday; numbers ending with 2 and 3 on Tuesday; ending with 4 and 5 on Wednesday; with 6 and 7 on Thursday; and with 8 and 9 on Friday).
-Less than 2 acres: 14 hours available (before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m.) More than 2 acres:18 hours available (before 10 a.m., after 4 p.m.)
Watering by hand and micro-irrigation: Allowed any day, any time
Establishment period for new planting: 60 days of "any day" watering.