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    Rainy season not enough

    Despite recent rains, the aquifer remains low and the likelihood of continued water restrictions high.

    [Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
    Students Nicole Kelly, left, and Molly Barthle, both 12, enjoy a break in the rain Friday at St. Anthony's Catholic School in San Antonio, Fla.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 2, 2000


    You may look out your window and see green, green grass. You may look up in the sky and see storm clouds.

    But don't think for a second that our drought is really over. It's not.

    Strict, once-a-week watering restrictions are still in place up and down the Suncoast, and there's no sign they'll go away in the foreseeable future. September may be our last hope of getting any serious rain until next year's rainy season.

    On Friday, the National Weather Service announced August's rainfall totals for the Tampa Bay area. It added some bleak statistics:

    The area got about 51/2 inches of rain last month, but that's still more than 2 inches below normal.

    That makes seven out of the past eight months where rainfall was below average.

    In fact, the first eight months of 2000 have been the driest since local records began in 1898.

    If you just count January through August of every year, 1999 and 2000 are two of the five driest years of the past century.

    "We're at a place we've never been before. We've never experienced anything like this -- record-setting low levels of rainfall," said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

    Summer rainstorms helped, but not enough.

    "We're just not catching up," Molligan said. "We're facing the possibility of entering the dry season in October with a very large rain deficit."

    That may mean no end to watering restrictions, at least until next summer.

    Swiftmud limited lawn and garden sprinkling to once a week in April. It set the restrictions to expire June 30. But not enough rain came, so Swiftmud's board extended the restrictions indefinitely.

    The board won't consider a return to twice-a-week watering until the Floridan Aquifer -- the underground reservoir that supplies most of the region's drinking water -- reaches the low end of its normal range.

    The aquifer isn't there yet, although it has reached its healthiest levels in months.

    Based on groundwater readings, aquifer levels are 7 inches below normal in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and 17 inches below normal in Hernando and Citrus counties, Swiftmud said Friday.

    That's an improvement over July, when the aquifer was as much as 40 inches below normal.

    "People see the rain and see their lawns rebound, and they think the drought is over. Clearly, that's not the case," Molligan said. "Our water resources have not recovered from the drought."

    The recovery is slow because so little rain ever finds its way into the aquifer.

    "We only have one month of rainy season left, and then we have a very long dry season to get through," Molligan said. "We're concerned about what spring is going to be like next year unless we get significant rainfall this month."

    This region typically gets about 6 inches of rain in September. It remains to be seen whether that would be enough to make a difference.

    The National Weather Service expects more rain than usual this month, based on changes in upper-air patterns and the possibility of tropical storms.

    "We need to get some rain," said weather service meteorologist Frank Alsheimer, "and we need it as soon as possible."

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