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Rain not enough to quench lakes' thirst in Hillsborough County

Shirley Perez, who has lived on Lake Alice for 40 years, says this year she’s seen the lake recede to “the lowest it’s been in a long time.”  She says it usually comes up to where she’s standing in this photo, and the highest it has ever been was touching the steps of her house, where her dog is shown here.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Shirley Perez, who has lived on Lake Alice for 40 years, says this year she’s seen the lake recede to “the lowest it’s been in a long time.” She says it usually comes up to where she’s standing in this photo, and the highest it has ever been was touching the steps of her house, where her dog is shown here.

ODESSA

Shirley Perez's children used to dive off her dock to splash and frolic in Lake Alice.

Not these days.

The lake remains invitingly clear, and the bottom is sandy white. But below Perez's dock, which doubles as her back porch, the water is scarcely more than bathtub-deep.

"It's awful low for as much rain as we've had," says Perez, a retired legal secretary who has lived on the lake for 40 years. In August, the lake was nearly 3 feet below its typical low level for a normal year.

Nor is Lake Alice unique. Lakes across Hillsborough County have yet to bounce back from the 27-month drought that gave way to more normal rain patterns this year.

This matters because the region's once-a-week watering restriction will expire Tuesday. That's when the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board is scheduled to vote whether to extend the restriction.

A Swiftmud spokeswoman said early this week the agency's staff is considering a recommendation to extend the one-day-per-week watering restrictions through Feb. 27.

Lake levels are one indicator of the area's hydrologic health, and thus whether there will be enough water if lawn irrigation increases.

Other factors that go into the decision include rain, weather forecasts and the level of the aquifer. Tampa Bay Water, the area's supplier, has asked Swiftmud to extend the restrictions.

While some lakes have reached or exceeded their normal-year lows, others have yet to recover fully from the drought.

"It's been very, very low, and it has not come up," said Bret Anderson, an attorney who has lived on Lake Stemper in Lutz for about 12 years.

In August, Lake Stemper was more than 21/2 feet below what would be its normal low.

The reasons why some lakes remain low while others have risen vary from lake to lake.

For one thing, Anderson noted, Lake Stemper is the southernmost and last in a chain of lakes that feeds a creek that flows to the Hillsborough River. Lakes farther up the chain have to fill up before water from them flows through swamps, creeks and channels into lakes farther down the chain.

In the meantime, Lake Stemper itself is more full of aquatic plants, algae blooms and stressed-out fish. Anderson's family used to eat fish caught in the lake.

But not lately.

"For a while there, they were kind of strange-looking fish," she said. "It's just not a hospitable environment for them to grow and flourish."

Elsewhere during August, Rainbow Lake between Keystone and Citrus Park was almost 2 feet below its normal low, Brandon's Gornto Lake was 2.6 feet below and southern Hillsborough's Lake Wimauma was 7.1 feet below normal.

The aquifer has returned to normal ranges throughout Swiftmud's jurisdiction as a result of this year's normal rainfall, officials say. But lake levels remain 1 to 4 feet below normal.

Lakes are a lagging indicator of the region's hydrological health for several reasons.

For one thing, "evaporation from lakes is pretty amazing," says Granville Kinsman, Swiftmud's manager of hydrologic data.

Consider this: Lakes lose 50 to 52 inches per year through evaporation. That's roughly the same as the area's normal annual rainfall. Anything less, Kinsman says, and lakes decline.

"The problem is lakes have been dropping for two years," he says. "Even when we got summer rains the last two years, they didn't come up very much."

Swiftmud isn't the only agency looking at water levels.

Last week, Pinellas County utility officials urged customers to conserve water because rainfall for the region was below normal for August and has run 5 to 6 inches below normal for September.

Consequently, according to Tampa Bay Water, the flows of the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers are both far below normal.

"It's going to take continued above-normal rainfall to bring them up and to keep them up there," Kinsman said. "We will eventually get above-normal rainfall. The question is just when."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Hillsborough

lake levels

The difference, in feet, between lake levels in August and the normal year low.

Lake Alice- 2.97
Bay Lake+ 1.48
Lake Brant- .42
Brooker Lake+ 1.72
Calm Lake- 1.44
Carlton Lake+ .5
Lake Carroll+ 1.08
Church Lake+ .99
Lake Cooper- 1.16
Crescent Lake+ 1.59
Deer Lake- 1.12
Egypt Lake+ 1.83
Gornto Lake- 2.6
Lake Harvey- .93
Lake Hiawatha+ 2.4
Horse Lake- 1.21
Lake Keene- .71
Keystone Lake + 1.56
Lake Leclare- .15
Little Lake+ 1.93
Long Pond- 1.26
Mud (Walden) Lake+ .75
Platt Lake+ 1.54
Rainbow Lake- 1.98
Lake Stemper- 2.56
Lake Thomas+ .97
Turkey Ford Lake+ .2
Lake Wimauma - 7.1
Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Rain not enough to quench lakes' thirst in Hillsborough County 09/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:28pm]

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