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    Bush seeks help with drought

    With Florida getting drier, the governor sends a team to Washington to assess the damage and the future.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN and ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


    Gov. Jeb Bush dispatched a team of state officials to Washington to meet today with federal emergency officials and assess Florida's continuing drought, which he called "the worst . . . in 50 years."

    The meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency will assess the state's future needs, including the possibility of federal assistance with water and firefighting.

    Bush sent representatives from the state Division of Forestry, Department of Community Affairs, Department of Environmental Protection and Bush's own office to meet with FEMA officials today.

    FEMA's assistance usually comes in the form of money. For instance, FEMA this week agreed to pay 70 percent of the state's bills for battling drought-driven wildfires once the price tops $1.5-million in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and nine other counties.

    Meanwhile, state officials are working on contingency plans that would call for trucking water to parched towns and cities, rationing the supply to a gallon per person and leasing portable desalination trucks or trailers similar to those used during the Persian Gulf War.

    "We're trying to see what steps we can take if we need to acquire, transport or somehow get water to different parts of the state," said Jim Loftus, state Department of Community Affairs spokesman. "We're just trying to identify any avenue."

    According to the National Climatic Data Center, 2000 was Florida's driest year on record. During the last two years, 64.17 inches of rain was recorded at Tampa International Airport -- 23 inches less than normal. That makes 1999 and 2000 the driest back-to-back calendar years on record.

    Loftus noted that the last such drought occurred when there were far fewer people living in Florida, watering their lawns, washing their cars and sprinkling their golf courses.

    "I don't think God intended to have this many people live on this peninsula with this much development and this little rain," Bush said this week while visiting the scene of a 10,000-acre wildfire in the dried-out Green Swamp in Polk County that closed Interstate 4 and forced the evacuation of several neighborhoods.

    Bush, who has been holding weekly conference calls with water management district officials from around the state, bemoaned the persistently dry conditions, saying they highlight the need to come to grips with the "serious problem of overpumping."

    Residents in all or part of 34 central and South Florida counties face water-use restrictions. The limits are the tightest since 1991.

    Yet the Tampa Bay area is using more water than in 1998, when average water use was 103 gallons per person per day. Now it's 118 gallons, although less than the national average of 150 gallons per day.

    "A lot of that is due to phenomenal growth -- we've got a lot of new lawns being established," said Norm Davis, conservation manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

    Central Florida is the latest part of the state to impose mandatory restrictions. Since mid-January, residents in five counties, including the Orlando area, have been limited to twice a week irrigation in an effort to reduce consumption by 15 percent.

    "There's been nothing this sweeping since we've been in existence since 1972," said Jeff Cole, spokesman for the St. Johns River Water Management District.

    But compliance with such restrictions is spotty at best. Officials of the South Florida Water Management District imposed what they believed to be severe watering restrictions in the hope of cutting consumption by nearly a third.

    Instead, it dropped just 7 percent.

    "A lot of people perceive that as long as there's water still coming out of the tap, there's plenty of water behind it," said Chuck Hanlan, logistics chief with the state Division of Emergency Management.

    Below-average rainfall is expected through April, and the rainy season does not begin until June. Rivers, lakes and ponds throughout the state are at record low levels, to the point where anglers and boaters have given up some Central Florida lakes as lost forever.

    The Hillsborough River, Tampa's primary water source, is experiencing less than a quarter of its normal flow rate -- 36 cubic feet per second, compared to the historic average of 160.

    The state's driest counties are the ones most at the greatest risk for wildfires. The Keetch-Byram Drought Index uses the amount of moisture in the upper layers of soil to assess the potential for wildfires, grading conditions from 0 for no drought to 800 for extreme drought. On the KBDI scale, most of Florida registers between 500 and 700.

    So far this year 1,325 fires have scorched 89,000 acres in Florida, and state forestry officials fear a repeat of 1998, when flames blackened a half-million acres and forced 130,000 people to evacuate. About 300 homes and 33 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

    During his visit to the Green Swamp fire, the governor called the state "a powder keg waiting to explode." But he stressed that the extreme conditions are a short-term problem, caused by "three horrible years" of little or no rain.

    "There's an underlying assumption," he said, "we're not living in the desert here."

    - Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which includes information from the Associated Press and the Miami Herald.

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