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Drying up and sinking in

As the drought deepens, nature is showing more signs of stress. Water use is up and there's still no sign of rain.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2000


Bugs are on the move, mighty oaks are feeling faint and in Seffner, the thirsty ground ate half a duplex.

In Hillsborough County there's talk of a fireworks-free Fourth of July.

In St. Petersburg, recycled sewer water is suddenly at a premium.

Everywhere, the Tampa Bay area is showing the effects of a severe drought threatening to become an extreme one.

Faced with restrictions and pleas for conservation, Tampa Bay residents responded last month by using even more water.

"May demand in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough was 283.5-million gallons per day," said Warren Hogg, Tampa Bay Water's permitting manager. "That's a record high monthly demand, and that's with one-day per week watering restrictions.

"I guess people are making sure they water on their day."

Large and small, signs of trouble are everywhere.

Cliff Searfoss, 28, was drinking his morning coffee Thursday on his front porch in Seffner when a portion of the duplex across the street suddenly fell 30 feet into the ground.

"I heard a crack, and it just went," he recalled.

Fortunately, the collapsed half of the building was vacant. The Michigan owners kept it for visitors, neighbors said.

Wally and Theresa Sparks, who live in the remaining half of the house, left Wednesday night when they heard a rumble and noticed a hole had formed outside their door.

"It sounded like an earthquake," Wally Sparks said. He and Theresa went to stay with her sister.

Sinkholes are often triggered by a change in groundwater levels. Water flows through cavities under the earth, and as long as it is there, those cavities do not collapse. If the water level falls, however, the cavities sometimes cannot support the weight above.

Water levels in the Floridan Aquifer are 2 feet lower than at this time last year, Hogg said, and Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough lake levels have fallen at the same rate.

Governments are doing what they can.

Tampa Bay Water on Wednesday began pumping water from the Morris Bridge sinkhole to augment the Hillsborough River, Tampa's main source of drinking water.

Last month, David Tippin, director of the city's water department, walked across the river at Fowler Avenue and didn't get his socks wet. It's often over his head at the same spot.

The city's average daily water consumption for the last week jumped to 83-million gallons, about 1.5-million more than the previous week. "As the weather gets warmer and it's still dry, I think demand will inch up," Tippin said.

The story was the same at the Hog Island Recreation Area, a popular picnic ground in the Withlacoochee State Forest in Sumter County. There, a segment of the Withlacoochee River bed was indistinguishable from a sandy road.

Water levels in at least one part of the river have reached an all-time low. Some stretches have dried up altogether; others are stagnant pools.

During a bad drought eight years ago, a stream of water was always visible here, said Bob Campbell, 57, of Sumter County, who has lived on the river for 13 years.

"This is way lower than it was in '92," he said.

Then there is the ever-present danger of brush fires, which scarred Sarasota County recently and continue to flare up across the region. On Thursday, a campfire set by vagrants ignited a fire that burned 3 acres on West Shore Boulevard south of Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. And a days-old fire continued to smolder near Gandy Boulevard and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street N in St. Petersburg.

"The problem is, with the ground so dry, we could pump water on it all day and it's not going to go out," said St. Petersburg fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo.

Some signs of trouble are smaller in scale.

"We are starting to see stress and even the potential death of upland trees such as oaks and pines," said Hogg of Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility. "Citrus trees are suffering."

Insects are thirsty, too, and are looking for water indoors.

"It's been a good two months of sales for us," said Kurt Chandler, branch sales manager for Terminix in Pinellas. "Ants, some outdoor roaches and silverfish are coming into homes, looking for moisture. Our phones have hardly stopped ringing."

In St. Petersburg on Thursday, the City Council limited its reclaimed water customers to watering three days a week, an unprecedented restriction for customers who have always been able to use as much highly treated wastewater for irrigation as they pleased for $10.36 per month.

The council had declined twice this year to pass the emergency ordinance, but crushing demand dropped pressure in the system so low that only a trickle of water would run from many customers' sprinklers.

Hillsborough County leaders will meet this afternoon at the Emergency Operations Center to talk about banning the sale or use of fireworks in the county.

County Fire Chief Bill Nesmith said he hopes there's nothing to discuss; fireworks should not be used when the entire county is as dry as kindling.

"We set a benchmark early on, and that was if the drought index was above 700 for three days, then we ban them," Nesmith said. "We have definitely met that benchmark, and there's no relief in sight."

And that's the problem, said Hogg.

"The National Weather Service has us classified a D-2, or severe drought," he said. "If we don't get our expected rains in June, we could move to D-3, extreme drought."

Times staff writers Wes Allison, Dan DeWitt, Steve Huettel, Joe Humphrey, Bryan Gilmer and Angela Moore contributed to this report.

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