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A record-setting dry run

With just 4.08 inches of rain from Jan. 1 through April 30, the Tampa Bay area got its driest start to any year since record-keeping began in 1915.

Times coverage
Current watering rules
By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Okay, what you suspected every time you looked at your lawn is now official.

The first four months of the new millennium were the driest start to any year since record-keeping began in 1915.

"People are mowing the bottoms of their lakes," said Tim De Foe, director of resource data for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The early months of each calendar year in Florida tend to be among the driest, but the Tampa Bay area has never seen anything like this. Swiftmud's central region, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, recorded 4.08 inches of rain from Jan. 1 through April 30. That's a little more than a third of what's normal for the period, which is more than 11 inches.

The previous record low was 4.5 inches in 1923.

"So we're nearly half an inch below the previous record low," De Foe said. "We would need a solid 6 to 9 inches of rain right now to get us back to just what is normal for this time of the year."

Although promising clouds scudded over much of the region Wednesday and a few brief showers materialized in northern Hillsborough County, they didn't do any good.

"It's been warmer than normal, too," De Foe said. "So what rain does fall doesn't have any lasting impact. Maybe it cuts demand for a day. But nothing stays on the ground long enough to soak into the aquifer, so it is no help at all to supply."

According to the Florida Climate Center, where the state's chief climatologist collects data from the National Weather Service, Tampa International Airport was the driest rainfall measurement location in the state for the past three months. But there might be relief soon.

The Center has done a lot of research on so-called La Nina years, when a cooling pool of Pacific Ocean water displaces the jet stream and produces weather anomalies, including drought in the Southeast. The latest research suggests that in La Nina years, such as 2000, late May and June rainfall can actually be above normal, De Foe said.

"And Weather Service data suggests we might actually have a wetter-than-normal rainy season," he added. "We might be coming out of this if we can just hang on. And if the forecasts are correct."

The current dry conditions, which have reached such a crisis that Swiftmud has imposed once-a-week lawn watering restrictions, date back to October 1998, De Foe said.

"That's when the Weather Service said the drought began," he said. "Last year, 1999, was the sixth-driest year on record, so we're just continuing that this year."

Meanwhile, the drought keeps creating new problems for local governments.

Hillsborough County on Wednesday changed its rules to spread permitted watering days throughout the work week, hoping to even out the intense demand from residents on watering days.

And in Citrus County, residents have been clogging 911 emergency lines with questions about watering restrictions and tips about law-breaking neighbors, officials said.

Even if the rains come soon, the problems won't disappear, said De Foe of Swiftmud.

"In a typical year, the region gets 53 inches of rain," he said. "In the last 19 months, there have been only 39 inches. There won't be any instantaneous resolution of this. This isn't something we got into all at once, and this isn't something we're going to get out of all at once."

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