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Inches of rain, drops in aquifer

Precipitation is normal now, meteorologists say, but only 13 percent reaches the aquifer, so the water shortage persists.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2001

Precipitation is normal now, meteorologists say, but only 13 percent reaches the aquifer, so the water shortage persists.

When Terra Sroka drives around, she sees deluges. She sees water standing in ditches and flooding roads. What she hears, though, is that the region and most of the state remain in a serious drought.

"I don't see why we're not out of it by now," said Sroka, an education conference coordinator from South Pasadena. "It's been pouring. We've been inundated. How can there still be a drought?"

Well, technically, there can't be. Yet water managers still talk about a crisis, and people are confused.

"It's hard to tell people we have a drought when they have mushrooms growing in the front yard," said Andy Devanas, the state meteorologist. "The fact is, we aren't in a drought. Drought is a meteorological term, meaning a prolonged period of abnormal rainfall that results in hydrological imbalances. We had that for three years. We don't have that any more. It is raining normally in most places. By definition, the drought is over."

Such talk causes officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District to cringe, and Devanas understands why.

"What they are referring to is a hydrological problem," he said. "The aquifer took a beating for three years, and it's still low. There is a lag time between the rainfall starting and the aquifer catching up. That's where we are."

The aquifer doesn't keep pace because only 13 percent of what falls finds its way underground. The rest runs off.

Swiftmud officials, who fear that conservation efforts might be abandoned if people think the supply crisis is over, acknowledge that rainfall has returned to normal or better, but they say that isn't enough.

"We still have depressed ground water levels," said Granville Kinsman, Swiftmud's manager of hydrologic data. "We have lakes that are three, four and five feet below where they should be at the end of May, at the end of the dry season. Typically, the rain will shut down again in October, and any gains we've seen this summer will begin to be depleted.

"We've had three years of dry weather. To think that 2 1/2 months of normal rainfall will fix that is ludicrous."

Aquifer levels have been recovering since rain began in June. In Swiftmud's central region, which includes Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, the level last week was within 0.15 feet of the low end of the normal range. In the northern part of the district, which includes Hernando and Citrus counties, the aquifer was within 1.33 feet of low-normal.

While that sounds like good news, it is something less, because the "normal range" for the aquifer is a band 4 feet thick in the north and 7 feet thick in the central. So the aquifer would have to rise another 2 feet in the north and 3.5 feet in the central areas to reach the mid range of normal. That is almost double the gains made since June.

Even if parts of the aquifer touch normal levels in the next week or so, Swiftmud is unlikely to ease emergency restrictions on water use, because there are only two months of the rainy season left.

"What the staff would like to see before we recommend to the board that it ease the emergency restrictions is for those levels to get into the normal range and stay there, show some sustainability," said Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan.

That would happen only if rains continue.

"What we're hoping for is some tropical activity in October and November that would extend the rainy season," Kinsman said.

There are, in fact, places the summer's rains have missed. One of them is Nobleton, in northeastern Hernando County, where Charlie Meers and his father, Bob, operate Nobleton Canoe Rental. They have started throwing barbecue dinners with country music shows every third Saturday to supplement a canoe business that is virtually nonexistent.

"Some places are flooding, and some places are bone dry, like us," Charlie Meers said. "There's enough water (in the Withlacoochee River) to do some short trips, maybe a mile, but no more."

Typically spotty rain patterns contribute to the confusion over when droughts end.

The National Weather Service takes its principal rainfall reading at Tampa International Airport. For some reason, the airport is the Sahara of the Tampa Bay region, notorious for rainfalls below the regional average. Yet airport rainfall is what goes into the record books.

"I don't know how many people I've talked to who are very doubtful about what Swiftmud is trying to sell," said Don Prichard, a chemistry teacher from New Port Richey. "Totals at Tampa International are given so much relevance, when what is reported there just doesn't match up with what we see when we look out our own windows."

Margaret Powers, a retired New York City police sergeant, who also lives in New Port Richey, said she gets very antsy when she hears people speculate that the drought is over.

"I feel that even though we've had a lot of rain, it really doesn't make up for the fact that the aquifer has been so low," Powers said. "I don't want to see people starting to use all the water they want to because they think our problems are over."

The final, and hopeful, word belongs to Devanas, the state meteorologist. Although rains will diminish when the rainy season ends, he does not expect the state to slip back into drought.

"There is no reason to believe, no climactic indicator at all, to suggest the drought will resume," he said. "Rains will let up, as they do in a normal winter, but they won't disappear."

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