TAMPA — Water authorities can't remember a September when the flow of the Alafia River trickled more slowly than this year. On a scale of 1 to 100, it's a 1.
"It's pretty much as low as you can go," Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.
The Hillsborough River isn't much better. It's a 2 out of 100.
That could have big consequences for water users throughout Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Water, which supplies the region's drinking water, can't pump water from either river because their flows are too slow. So it's relying on lower-than-average withdrawals from the Tampa Bypass Canal and output from its desalination plant to meet demand.
All of that water is going to consumption, not the C.W. Bill Young Reservoir, which helps get Tampa Bay through the dry spring season. That's unusual for this time of year, when the region's wet season usually peaks. This year, it peaked in August.
September saw less than 2 inches of rainfall in Central Florida, about 5 inches less than average. And these lows are exacerbated by a two-year drought.
"I can't remember a worse time for the Alafia," said Tampa Bay Water's demand management coordinator, Dave Bracciano.
On Friday, the flow was only 37 cubic feet per second. The last time it was that slow right after the rainy season was in 1944, Swiftmud reported.
Although park rangers and canoe companies are still seeing water lovers launch their boats into the slow-moving rivers, water authorities are painting a dire picture.
Usually water levels peak in September and October. This year they peaked in August after some tropical storms that brought wet weather elsewhere ushered in dry air around Tampa Bay, Felix said.
Tampa Bay Water needs about 7-million gallons of water going into the driest season, Bracciano said, which is in the spring. It has about 6.5-million gallons now, and some of it is already being used.
The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a drier-than-normal winter for the Tampa Bay area, said Douglas LeConte, the center's drought specialist.
"If you don't see some good rains going into the winter season, current problems could persist or potentially get worse," he said.
But even with the low rain and dire forecast, water use is up in the five governments Tampa Bay Water serves. Since the end of August, they've seen an increased use of 57-million gallons per day. Bracciano believes it's going toward lawn watering.
"We need the public to conserve water as much as possible," he said. "Consider skipping irrigation cycles."
Last week, Swiftmud extended the once-a-week watering restrictions through February. But if winter is as dry as the Climate Prediction Center is forecasting, the cutbacks could become more severe. There could be watering-time restrictions and bans on the use of items such as fountains.
"Our gas tank is low, but we started our trip," Bracciano said. "We've got to figure out how to get through the trip, get more gas, or slow down and save."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.