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 started this week as a 1.
"It's pretty much as low as you can go," Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.
By Wednesday, it reached 4, and the Hillsborough River was a 3.
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. The 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.
Two weeks ago, the flow was 37 cubic feet per second. The last time it was that slow right after the rainy season was in 1944, the water district reported.
Although park rangers and canoe companies are still seeing water-lovers launch their boats into the Alafia River, water managers are painting a dire picture.
Water levels usually 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. They have 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.
Even with the low rain and dire forecast, water use is up in the areas served by Tampa Bay Water.
Since the end of August, water use has increased 57-million gallons per day. Bracciano thinks it's going to lawn watering.
"We need the public to conserve water as much as possible," he said. "Consider skipping irrigation cycles."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.