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Only time, rain dance may ease long drought

If the area gets any more parched, expect further water cutbacks. The forecast among experts? Partly gloomy.

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008


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The symptoms are everywhere: Lakes, rivers and reservoirs are all well below normal. Weekly watering restrictions, already in place for a year, have been pushed to the end of June.

Two years into the Tampa Bay area's worst drought since 2000, experts are praying for a rainy summer. Otherwise, expect the list of things you can't do with water to lengthen.

In Hillsborough County, water comes from several sources. About 80 percent of it is pumped to the surface from an aquifer. The rest comes from places like the Tampa Bypass Canal, Tampa's reservoir, and the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers.

If you think that turning on your tap and seeing water come out means there's no shortage, think again. Rainfall is the ultimate source, and it has been scarce for two years.

On the bright side, the Tampa Bay area has two resources it didn't have during the droughts of 2000 and 2001. The C.W. Bill Young Reservoir in southeast Hillsborough currently holds 10-billion gallons, down from nearly 15-billion gallons in 2006. The recently activated Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant adds 25-million gallons a day.

"The Tampa Bay area is much better off during this drought than during 2001 because of the reservoir and the desalination plant," said Robyn Hanke, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Still, here are some indicators of our water woes:

- Rainfall measured during the past 24 months in the areas near the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers is down 16 inches. Water flow in the Hillsborough River is down 75 percent; in the Alafia River, 80 percent.

- Lakes in the Tampa Bay area are 1 to 4 feet below normal.

- To keep the Hillsborough River depth above 18 feet normal is 22.5 feet, Tampa began buying 30- to 40-million gallons of water a day from Tampa Bay Water.

Does education work?

So, in light of the shrinking water supply, are we getting the message?

The answer is yes - finally. At the start of the current drought two years ago, water usage in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties actually went up on days residents had been told not to water their lawns.

"You can't really say that if you're in a drought, demand is going to go down," said Dave Bracciano of Tampa Bay Water.

Cities and governments responded with an aggressive education effort, which had more residents keeping their spigots off during nonwatering days.

Tampa Bay Water has seen a drop in overall demand since 2006, from an April 2006 peak of 307-million gallons a day to 249-million gallons at the end of 2007, with nearly a 300-million-gallon spike in May 2007.

That's comparable to the drought of 2000 and 2001, when usage decreased between 9 and 20 percent.

But water use picked up again in January, resulting in a 400-million-gallon drop in the C.W. Bill Young Reservoir.

Worst-case scenario

If the drought worsens significantly, the water district would likely bypass Phase 3 - an extreme water shortage - and go directly to Phase 4, a critical water shortage, Hanke said.

The district strengthened its array of available restrictions after the 2000 drought. The new Phase 4 rules still allow weekly lawn watering but give water suppliers an option they never had before: the right to cut off service to repeat offenders.

Such an option would likely be levied to reduce service, not eliminate it, unless the user had obtained water service illegally, Hanke said.

Experts differ on whether, or by how much, the drought will worsen. Ocean and atmospheric conditions that helped create it could start to dissipate by late spring, Hanke said.

Still, the National Drought Mitigation Center predicts a "long-term" drought in Central Florida, and the National Weather Service warns that the drought will ease up in mid-Atlantic states before Florida gets much relief.

"The situation in Georgia has really opened up people's eyes about climate conditions, and what we might face here as well," said Michelle Van Dyke, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Water Department. Public awareness is the critical first step, she said.

Once the drought has abated, it could take the Tampa Bay area two to three years to recover, Hanke predicted.

"There really is no magic answer," Hanke said. "It took two years of below-average rainfall to get where we are now, and it's going to be a long-term process to get back to normal."

 

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2431.

 

By the numbers

Measuring the drought

8.6percent drop in the aquifer level, January 2006 to January 2008

51.6inches of rain in 2005 in Hillsborough and surrounding counties

44.2inches of rain in 2006 in Hillsborough and surrounding counties

41.3inches of rain in 2007 in Hillsborough and surrounding counties

3.1percent drop in lake levels, Tampa Bay region, December 2006 to December 2007

5percent drop in water level, Lake Wimauma, January 2006 to January 2008

20.7rainfall deficit, in inches, for the region, November 2005 to October 2007.

Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District

 

[Last modified February 7, 2008, 07:49:05]


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