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Wells and waterways are running dry around the state, but experts say the worst of the drought is yet to come.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001

TAMPA -- The latest sign of Florida's drought sits in a new warehouse among the thrift stores and auto repair shops on Nebraska Avenue. Stacked to the ceiling are hundreds of cases of bottled water, stockpiled by the Salvation Army.

"We are storing a ton of water for the state," said Kevin Smith, the Salvation Army's emergency disaster services director.

Smith said state officials asked them to store bottled water for thirsty firefighters battling wildfires caused by the drought, and the rest "we are storing in the event that wells begin to go dry."'

Florida, already the driest state in the union, is showing signs of much deeper troubles.

This week in Chiefland, a small town southwest of Gainesville, one of the three municipal wells supplying water to 1,000 customers had to be shut off because it was pumping out nothing but sand.

The two remaining wells can carry the load, said City Manager Earl Cannon, but should one of them falter, people are likely to start getting thirsty.

"All of us are praying for rain," Cannon said.

In Citrus County, the well supplying water to about 100 people at the Castle Lake mobile home park in Floral City began sucking air. The county's water table had dropped too low. Residents had to buy bottled water until a contractor could lower the well pump.

And in South Florida, water managers have been forced to shut off the flow that is supposed to replenish canals and coastal wells from West Palm Beach to Boca Raton. The floodgates might reopen, water managers said, after area utilities and farmers agree to a plan to ration the supply.

"We're reaching the point where people need to be really serious about reducing the water they use at home -- and not just on their lawns," Broward County water manager Roy Reynolds told the Miami Herald,For months, the drought has been like a slow-moving natural disaster, damaging crops and draining swamps, which then catch fire.

Part of Lake Okeechobee, the "Liquid Heart of Florida," burned last month. In Everglades National Park, the water level has dropped so low no one can use airboats to get around the River of Grass.

State officials are so concerned about the looming water crisis that Gov. Jeb Bush convened a summit meeting on the subject last week in Tampa. They have drafted a contingency plan 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.

State officials already have been in touch with private water suppliers like IAP Worldwide Services, which is under federal contract to provide water to hurricane- and tornado-stricken areas around the country. Company officials say they could get an emergency water supply to Florida within 24 hours, for the right price.

Yet, despite government-imposed restrictions throughout much of the state's peninsula, many people have continued sprinkling their lawns and washing their cars as if there is no crisis.

The inch or so of rain that fell Sunday on parts of the state was, literally, a drop in the bucket, not nearly enough to counter three years of below-average rainfall.

Experts say the worst is yet to come as winter turns to spring, usually the driest season of all in Florida.

Even when the summer rainy season arrives in May or June, its daily thunderstorms may not be sufficient to make up the precipitation deficit.

"The summer rain should be normal, but that's not going to fill up your ponds," said state climatologist James J. O'Brien. "What you need is a good big hurricane."

The Suwannee River Water Management District in North Florida, where more than 40 private wells have gone dry, recently approved a 90-day moratorium on issuing any new permits for large water users.

Meanwhile, utilities are tapping their emergency reserves, trying to stretch them until the summer somewhat replenishes their supply.

The Peace River-Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, which serves about 100,000 customers in Charlotte County, the city of North Port and part of DeSoto County, normally draws its supply from the Peace River. But for months the river has been too low to use, so the utility is pumping out 1-billion gallons of reserve water it had stored in deep wells.

"The last I heard we were depleting that pretty rapidly," David Rathke, the authority's governmental affairs coordinator, said this week. "By the time we're done, we're going to use it all."

The move has kept taps flowing for the utility's customers, but the water from those deep wells is higher in dissolved minerals, prompting complaints about its odor and taste. If the water quality deteriorates enough, the authority could advise people to use it only for showering and flushing the toilet, not for drinking.

Although Gov. Bush last week declared the water shortage "a crisis, not a potential crisis," state officials say they have not reached the point of needing the Salvation Army's water stockpile.

The Salvation Army had no plans to store water at its new 45,000-square-foot Tampa warehouse until state officials asked them to do so recently, disaster services director Smith said.

When the relief organization agreed to stockpile the water, he said, trucks began delivering cases of it the day the warehouse opened last Monday, and continued bringing shipments until Wednesday afternoon. There are now 150 pallets of water bottles stacked in the warehouse, some of it donated by Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water Co.

Should the water supply dry up completely in a community, Smith said, then state officials would notify the Salvation Army to truck in bottled water and distribute it, limiting it to one gallon per person per day.

But that's only a stopgap solution, Smith said.

"Tampa needs 70-million gallons a day to keep going," he said, then gestured around at the stacks of bottles. "You're not looking at a million gallons here."

- Times staff writer Alex Leary and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

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