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Tampa becomes ground zero on drought

A task force charged with creating solutions to the state's two-year drought casts a wary eye on the dried up Hillsborough River.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2001

A task force charged with creating solutions to the state's two-year drought casts a wary eye on the dried up Hillsborough River.

TALLAHASSEE -- A temporary break from drinking water quality standards. Scores of mini-desalination plants wheeled out to the coast. Flushing South Florida canals with highly treated wastewater to prevent saltwater intrusion.

No one is seriously proposing these measures to combat the drought gripping much of Florida -- at least not yet. But 150 state and federal officials who gathered Friday to develop a plan of action in case public spigots run dry were told to keep those ideas in mind.

"I'm ready to go slit my wrists. This is a gloomy, gloomy situation we've got here," said Sonny Vergara, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud.

"If we get no relief ... it could get real ugly for that city of half a million people."

He means Tampa, where state and now federal officials are watching with alarm as the city's main source of water, the Hillsborough River, continues to dry up. But it's not the only spot in the state at risk, and participants at Friday's water summit hope to have a plan in place by mid-April that deals with water shortages and other effects of drought, such as wildfires and property damage.

"We'd be negligent if we didn't prepare for three, four or five months of serious drought," Gov. Jeb Bush told summit participants at the state's emergency operations center.

One thing state officials said they need is federal flexibility, short of a presidential declaration, to enact quick fixes. For example, filling canals with reclaimed water to prevent saltwater from creeping in and fouling wells requires waivers of environmental rules, said Frank Koutnik, an administrator with the state's Department of Community Affairs, or DCA.

The same goes for temporarily loosening water quality standards to allow for more sodium in public drinking water until other water sources can be developed, he said.

That could be a sticking point for Pinellas County, which for years refused to provide its water customers anything but groundwater out of concern for contaminants. Officials there suggested that water from lakes, streams and reservoirs carried organisms potentially dangerous to human health, especially among elders.

But drastic times call for drastic measures, and the government could only handle the alternative -- rationing bottled water -- for so long, officials said.

"In certain parts of Florida, this is a major crisis," DCA Secretary Steve Seibert said.

The area governed by Swiftmud falls under that umbrella.

Earlier this week, that board voted to require local governments to scrutinize all developments to ensure that future water needs can be met.

And Bush suggested that water capacity be more strongly tied to the state's growth management efforts.

"As communities grow, they can no longer think they can't invest in roads, water capacity and schools," Bush said outside the meeting.

Although water availability dominated Friday's discussion, officials said it's not the only threat facing the state. Firefighting resources may be strained when spring lightning strikes start wildfires that then feed off tinder-dry brush.

Farmers are selling off parts of their herds, which are underweight.

Home and business owners suffer property damage when their wells run dry or their foundations crack as the parched earth settles.

State and federal officials plan to put together a list of the programs government agencies have for people who've suffered from the drought, and public service announcements urging people to conserve are scheduled to start running next month.

"I think we're laying the boilerplate for something we can take to other regions" of the country, said Paul Fay, chief of response and recovery for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's fourth region, which includes Florida.

- Staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.

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