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Drought not washed away

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


INVERNESS -- There's a long way to go, folks.

Citrus County on Monday was bathed in a second consecutive day of heavy rainfall. Problem is, the downpours, though offering hope for a wet summer, were fleeting, observers said.

Less than a half-inch fell across Citrus on Sunday, according to Division of Forestry readings in Crystal River, Homosassa and Inverness, which got the most. The total for Monday's rains, heavier than Sunday's, will not be known until the daily readings are taken at about 7 a.m.

L.C. Alexander hardly noticed the change in weather.

"I live off what used to be a lake," said the Inverness resident, a longtime commentator on water issues as a member of TOO FAR -- Taxpayers Outraged Organization for Accountable Representation.

"I'm looking at head-high brush, weeds, sawbrush . . . but no wetlands whatsoever," he said. "No water for a bird to drink. I went outside and counted 15 drops; might have missed one."

Although minimal, the recent rains should be a harbinger of better things to come, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Sobien said Monday.

The low-pressure system filled with tropical moisture that brought the showers may fade by Thursday. But Sobien predicted regular summer weather patterns of daily afternoon rains are coming. "I think in general we're in the wet season," he said.

The emergency watering restrictions imposed in April by the Southwest Florida Water Management District remain in effect, spokesman Mike Molligan said. People still can only water their lawns once a week and the district's governing board may extend the order well into the summer, he said.

The appearance of rain actually worries some residents and county officials interested in taking advantage of the drought to remove built-up muck from the 19,000-acre Tsala Apopka chain of lakes.

First, lakeside residents criticized the local, state and federal governments for not clarifying their rules for muck removals. Now that the county recently decided to pursue a major clearing project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local officials are joining residents in venting frustration with the federal agency and its slow permitting process.

On Monday, the Army Corps office in Jacksonville said the review of the permit applications would not begin until next week. The agency still is waiting for comments from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and must allow people living near the projects time to respond.

The delays leave some hoping the weather will stay dry until the muck removal can get under way.

"Yes, it's very frustrating," Alexander said. "You sometimes wonder . . . why in the world do we spend all this money year in and year out and then when we come to a place where we really need these agencies all we get is the runaround?"

Every ounce of rain lowers the risk of fire, said Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Terence McElroy said.

An inch of rainfall takes 100 points off the drought index, which measures the amount of moisture in the top 3 feet of soil, he said. Before Sunday's and Monday's rains, Citrus ranked among the driest counties in Florida, Division of Forestry data show.

What the area's main water source -- the Floridan Aquifer -- needs is consistent rainfall, Molligan said. "We're appreciative of all we can get," he said. "But as far as any long-term, widespread impact on hydrological conditions, it's very minor."

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