Sunday, October 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

May 2017: A punishing drought. May 2018: All the rain we needed.

Late spring is when the Tampa Bay area usually runs out of water.

Temperatures are rising, but the regular summer rain hasnít kicked in.

Itís when bay area residents can expect water usage restrictions and headlines warning of dangerously low reservoir levels. Itís when local governments issue burn notices to reduce the wildfire threat of dry ground.

This time last year, Tampa Bay was enduring one of Floridaís worst droughts.

Not so this year.

Rain fell in historic proportions last month, making May one of the wettest on record locally. Subtropical Storm Alberto led to rainfall in 17 out of the last 19 days in Tampa last month. It was the sixth wettest May on record in Tampa, the second wettest in St. Petersburg and the wettest ever in Lakeland.

The extra rainfall has raised reservoir levels, temporarily reduced the wildfire threat and lifted Florida from drought, weeks before the summer rain engine usually brings relief.

But all that extra water comes with its own problems.

ē ē ē

During the winter months, when rain is sporadic and river levels drop, the utility that manages the bay areaís drinking water supply leans on its reservoir.

Tampa Bay Water uses the Alafia River, Tampa Bypass Canal and other bodies of water to replenish the 15.5-billion gallon C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir.

EXTENDED FORECAST: The 10-day outlook for the Tampa Bay area

That often happens well into the summer.

This year, the utility has already started that process.

During last yearís drought, the reservoir fell to about 5 billion gallons. This year, it sits at 11 billion.

"We typically donít start putting water back in it for another couple weeks," Tampa Bay Water spokesman Brandon Moore said. "So this rain has really helped."

When the reservoir is depleted this time of year, governments start issuing restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars.

Bay area residents havenít seen those kinds of warnings this year.

Most places around Tampa Bay and Central Florida receive between two and four inches of rain during a typical May. But last month, many locales saw at least three times their average rainfall.

Tampa received 7.73 inches of rain ó more than five inches above normal. St. Petersburg saw 9.68 inches of rain, almost 7.5 inches above normal.

Nothing topped Lakeland, where more than 19 inches fell. Thatís almost six times its May average of 3.36 inches.

ē ē ē

Spring is when things grow in Florida.

But thatís also when the ground dries out, said Judi Tear, a mitigation specialist with the Florida Forest Serviceís Withlacoochee Forestry Center. Plants pull water from the ground to grow, leaving the soil barren and ready to fuel a fire.

>>>FROM 2017:> More than 100 wildfires scorch Florida, a sign of how dry we are>>

Lightning strikes can ignite the dry ground, leading to wildfires. Thatís what happened last spring, Tear said, when storms delivered lightning but little rain. In 2017, much of the North Suncoast contended with wildfires for months. Not the case this year.

"Weíve not seen the lightning (fires) that we had last year," she said. The storms have delivered more rain, so any lightning has struck wet ground.

At the start of May, much of Florida was experiencing drought conditions. Before the stretch of rain started on May 13, many of Floridaís counties registered high on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture. High numbers mean dry soil.

By Tuesday, almost the entire state registered low scores on the drought index, mitigating ó for now ó the fire threat.

Fire experts are worried the summer could still be an active one for wildfires. Tear said Hurricane Irma could also impact the wildfire situation. The 2017 hurricane knocked down trees and branches, which can dry quickly. That leaves even more kindling for a fire this year.

"Weíll dry up again," Tear said. "Weíve gotten a lot of rain. But in Florida, itís flat, itís hot, itís dry. And those fine grassier fuels dry up pretty quickly."

ē ē ē

In Florida, the rain has always been a double-edged sword.

Thatís because heavy rains after drought can lead to sinkholes. The water table can drop, leaving a cavern beneath the top layer of earth. Then, heavy rains can dissolve limestone, which collapses into the caverns below.

>>>HURRICANE GUIDE:> Emergency information, tracking map and storm resources>>

Last summer, a massive sinkhole more than 250 feet wide swallowed two houses in a Land OíLakes neighborhood and left seven others condemned. It opened on July 14, after torrential rains ended the 2017 drought.

Oversaturation also means the ground and rivers canít hold excess water when it rains. When Alberto threatened Florida last week, forecasters worried the already heightened rivers would overflow their banks.

And wet ground makes it hard for the Forest Service to starve fires of fuel through mitigation. One of the firefighting agencyís most effective tools is prescribed burns, during which workers ignite dry sources of fuel in a controlled manner to ensure they donít fuel a real wildfire.

Said Tear: "The good news is, once we catch back up on our dry days, we can catch back up on our prescribed burning."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

>MORE WEATHER>

>>>DOWNLOAD:> Get the tbo Weather App and see where storms are headed>>

>>>LIVE RADAR:> Interactive storm track, hourly outlooks, 10-day forecasts and weather alerts>>

>>>ALERTS:> The latest advisories from the National Weather Service >>

Comments
After Hurricane Michael, a hunt for surviving oysters in Apalachicola

After Hurricane Michael, a hunt for surviving oysters in Apalachicola

† The old oyster cleaning room at the 13 Mile Oyster House now shows a destroyed dock where the Ward family docked their boats and TJ maintains his smallest oysters that he farms. TJ Ward assesses his farmed oysters after Hurricane Mich...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/21/18
Wet and mild: Warm winter predicted for much of the U.S.

Wet and mild: Warm winter predicted for much of the U.S.

WASHINGTON ó Winter looks wet and especially mild for much of the country, thanks to a weak El Nino brewing, U.S. meteorologists said. Tampa meteorologist Jennifer Hubbard said the Tampa Bay area can except mostly the same, with mild winter temperatu...
Published: 10/19/18
Record-setting hot streak continues across Tampa Bay, but not for long

Record-setting hot streak continues across Tampa Bay, but not for long

Friday will be another record-breaking day for Tampa Bay.
Published: 10/19/18
Mexico Beach was gone. But we found a way to get there.

Mexico Beach was gone. But we found a way to get there.

Reporting in a hurricane is dangerous, complicated and important. When it came to Hurricane Michael, we had to find a way to tell the stories.
Published: 10/18/18
Updated: 10/19/18
Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?

Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?

Hurricane Michael barely grazed the edge of the Tampa Bay area on its way to flattening the small towns of the Florida Panhandle.But what if Tampa Bay had been its target? What if the strong Category 4 storm had slammed into Belleair Shore instead of...
Published: 10/18/18
Updated: 10/19/18
More record heat for Tampa Bay to close out week, ahead of a slightly cooler Sunday

More record heat for Tampa Bay to close out week, ahead of a slightly cooler Sunday

It'll be another searing day in Tampa Bay as temperatures rise to 92 by the afternoon. With scarce cloud cover and little chance of rain, there's little chance of a cool down until Sunday.
Published: 10/18/18
Baby born after Hurricane Michael starts life in Walmart parking lot

Baby born after Hurricane Michael starts life in Walmart parking lot

Wilmer Capps, wife Lorrainda Smith and little Luke settled in for the longest of nights in the best spot they could find: The parking lot of a Walmart store shut down by the storm.
Published: 10/18/18
Hurricane Michael: How we prepared to cover the aftermath

Hurricane Michael: How we prepared to cover the aftermath

What is the storm category rating? Concrete block with steel-rebar-reinforced columns is acceptable. Stay away from brick-, wood- or metal-framed structures. They could collapse or be compromised by wind and water.
Published: 10/18/18
Searing heat continues to remain intact across Tampa Bay

Searing heat continues to remain intact across Tampa Bay

Another October day, another potential record-high temperature in Tampa Bay.
Published: 10/17/18
Michael’s most vulnerable evacuees make Pasco shelter their new home

Michael’s most vulnerable evacuees make Pasco shelter their new home

HUDSON — Linda Wood lay on a metal cot, closed her eyes and tried to get some sleep Monday night. Pictures of her Panama City apartment some 300 miles away kept flashing through her mind. The nearly blind 71-year-old envisioned her chocolate-c...
Published: 10/17/18