Don't crank up the lawn sprinklers yet, but state water officials say they see signs that Florida's latest drought — which has been going on since 2006 — may finally be easing up.
At least for now, though, watering restrictions remain in effect.
"So far this year things have been better," Robin Felix, of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, said last week.
"We've seen a good rebound in the rivers and the lakes, but the aquifer is still low."
Farther south, around Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, rainfall has hit above-average levels for three months in a row. But in some parts of the state, from Sarasota south to Naples, water remains in short supply.
Florida's wet season typically begins in late May or early June and continues for about five months through Nov. 1, producing two-thirds of South Florida's annual rainfall.
"The outlook is much more optimistic (for the rainy season) than it was this time last year," said Ben Nelson, state meteorologist for the Division of Emergency Management. "If we have a typical wet season, we should be out of the drought by the end of the year."
For the past 22 months, Florida's skies have been mostly dry. So during 2006 and 2007, when the Tampa Bay region should have received 53 inches of rain a year, only 43 inches fell in 2006 and 41 inches in 2007.
Meanwhile South Florida's counties saw the driest consecutive years in the region since recordkeeping began in 1932. Statewide, the "rainfall deficit" is the largest since the mid 1950s, according to the state Department of Emergency Management.
The effects have been easy to see all over the state. In July 2007, Lake Okeechobee's water level dropped lower than it had ever been before, 8.82 feet. At Crews Lake, one of Pasco County's biggest bodies of water, a wooden pier that normally extends into 20 feet of water stood high and dry. Three months ago, the Hillsborough River's flow was down 75 percent, and in the Alafia River it had dropped 80 percent.
Because of the drought, Swiftmud imposed watering restrictions on its 16-county region in January 2007, limited watering to once a week. The restrictions have been extended several times. They are currently set to expire in June. The South Florida Water Management District soon followed with one-day-a-week restrictions.
But recent rainfall has improved the picture somewhat. The water level in Lake Okeechobee, for instance, recently measured 10.09 feet, although that's still 3.5 feet below the historical average for this time of year. Three weeks ago, the South Florida district relaxed its watering rules to twice a week.
Don't look for Swiftmud to do the same before June, however. While average lake levels around the Tampa Bay area rose somewhat, they are still more than a foot below the normal range.
The drought spurred Swiftmud officials to work with their counterparts in South Florida and at the St. Johns River Water Management District on drawing up proposed statewide irrigation rules that would focus more on conservation than the current rules do. So far, though, those measures have not been finalized.
There have been more dramatic droughts. In 1998, for instance, conditions were so dry that wildfires spread throughout the state, and then-Gov. Lawton Chiles asked the public to pray for rain.