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Unusually dry winter could mean tighter water restrictions by spring

Predictions of an extremely dry winter already have regional water officials talking about tougher water restrictions and some predict a multiyear drought in Florida.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees a 16-county area that includes the Tampa Bay region, issued a "Phase I" water shortage alert Tuesday, which mostly served as a warning to local governments to be prepared.

The next phase could be reduced hours and days of watering.

"Right now, we're just making sure each government's enforcement procedures are in place in case we do go to tighter restrictions," Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.

The warning came after Swiftmud hydrologist Granville Kinsman presented a slide show to his board suggesting that last month, the driest October in Tampa Bay history, was just the beginning.

The forecast for an unusually dry winter is based partly on forces at work in the Pacific Ocean.

Those forces largely involve the El Niño and La Niña phenomena. An El Niño occurs when warm surface water in the Pacific Ocean moves east toward the West Coast and Central America. For Florida that means heavy rains and even violent winter weather. A La Niña means those surface waters slough to the west, leading to drier Florida winters.

The transition from El Niño to La Niña last winter was the strongest and most rapid transition on record, Kinsman said. That speed usually portends a long period of dryness, he said.

A similar transition in 1988 and 1989 led to almost three years of drought.

"I've been looking at this a long time, and I've seen great improvement in the forecast models," said Kinsman, who has been studying water data for Swiftmud for more than 20 years. "The coordination with El Niño and La Niña seems to be a very strong indicator for a longer-term forecast."

The National Weather Service also forecasts a drier-than-normal winter, though meteorologist Anthony Reynes cautioned that the longer term forecast is more difficult to predict.

Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker agreed. "I see us dry through the spring, but I don't see any indicator that we would not have a weather event at some point that could change all that," he said. "Last spring it was so dry we were concerned about a fire season. And then all of a sudden we had a very wet March."

The good news is that the Tampa Bay area's 15-billion-gallon reservoir is up to 12.5-billion gallons, Felix said.

While that may be enough to survive till the rainy season next summer, she said, an extremely dry winter combined with increased water usage could lead to tighter watering restrictions.

Current lawn and landscape watering remains limited to two days a week, with watering allowed only before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Some counties impose even stricter limits.

Hillsborough County Water Resources spokeswoman Michelle Van Dyke was working on e-mails and news releases Wednesday to spread Swiftmud's message, which she said she tries to do year-round anyway.

"I always say at my presentations to people, 'Water restrictions in this area are a way of life,' " Van Dyke said. "Oftentimes, I think folks get the idea that we'll be out of water restrictions one day if things are great, but … it doesn't work like that."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Unusually dry winter could mean tighter water restrictions by spring 11/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 10:17pm]
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