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Watering restrictions extended

With a spring disaster narrowly averted and the aquifer not replenished by recent rains, Swiftmud votes to keep once-a-week limits.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- The Tampa Bay region had a perilous brush with disaster this spring when storage in the Tampa reservoir dipped to a 14-day supply, sending regulators into a desperate search for water.

And Tampa was not alone. No water flowed from the Green Swamp that covers large areas of Pasco and Polk counties and feeds the Hillsborough River. In Manatee County, 12 miles of the Peace River went bone dry. Utilities that use the Peace River for drinking water haven't been able to do so for 130 days.

Although the rains have started, the Floridan Aquifer, on which the Tampa Bay region depends for drinking water, has been largely unaffected by recent downpours. The aquifer is, in fact, in worse condition today than when the Southwest Florida Water Management District imposed once-a-week watering restrictions in April.

"We are still in extreme drought; the drought really hasn't changed," said Tim De Foe, director of resource data. "The first five months of the year were the driest ever. We've never been here before."

Against that backdrop, the Swiftmud board voted unanimously Tuesday for an indefinite extension of once-a-week watering restrictions. With no guarantee that even normal summer rainfall would adequately recharge the aquifer, the tighter restrictions could remain for at least a year and perhaps permanently.

"I'm hearing my board say they want to leave once-a-week on permanently, but I think for now we want to preserve our options," said Swiftmud Chairman Ron Johnson.

In the northern part of the district, which includes Hernando and Citrus counties, the aquifer is 2.5 feet below the bottom line of normal for this time of year, according to De Foe. In the central district, which includes Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties, the aquifer is 2.65 feet below normal. In the southern part of the district, the aquifer is 7 feet below normal.

The impacts on the surface have been horrific.

To hear Swiftmud staff tell it, the scramble to keep Tampa from going bone dry was a desperation effort, though the city's utilities director said it never got as serious as the staff described.

Swiftmud learned in mid-April that the Tampa reservoir was down to a 14-day supply and ordered pumping to begin from the Tampa Bypass Canal into the Hillsborough River.

"We had to stabilize the reservoir, which is fed by the river," said Executive Director Sonny Vergara. "It gets pretty frantic, trying to keep water in the Hillsborough River. Now the reservoir is starting to recover because of the rain."

Dave Tippen, Tampa's utilities director, said the city was never down to its last 14 days of water.

"It was really only 14 days of storage," Tippen said in an interview later Tuesday. "It would only have been a 14-day supply if no water were flowing into the reservoir and if we weren't getting water from (the regional wholesale utility) Tampa Bay Water. We weren't going to run out of water."

Regardless, the situation created an ominous possibility for next spring. If the aquifer doesn't recover this summer and Tampa faces the same crisis next spring, the supplemental water might not be there.

"We won't be able to repeat what we did this year," said Gene Heath, deputy executive director. "We resorted to things we've never before tried because things got so desperate."

Swiftmud officials said they foresaw how serious the water situation would become and began meeting with local utilities as early as last December.

But the agency waited until the end of April to impose the once-a-week watering restrictions, weeks after local governments had imposed tougher restrictions.

"The district covers 16 counties, but if we react as a body to Tampa's situation, we affect all 16 of those counties," Vergara said. "As local governments in charge of their resources, they are free to implement their own restrictions. I don't know that we should dictate to local governments.

"I think the handling of this drought went very well."

All governments within Swiftmud's 16-county region must comply with the restrictions, or enforce tougher restrictions.

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