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Deepening drought at 1985 level

The people who pump most of the Tampa Bay area's drinking water said the current drought is as bad as the 1984-85 dry spell, then warned Monday that 140,000 more people have tapped into their region's pipeline since then. It's even worse than that, said another group, the state agency monitoring groundwater supplies. Regionally, the drought is the worst in almost 20 years and the competition for clean water among residents, farmers and industry has greatly intensified since then.

"There's the potential for seeing a more severe response to the groundwater resource this year than has ever been seen before," said Marianne Korosy, hydrologic services manager for the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Her comment came as she updated the authority's board of directors about the deepening drought and its effect on groundwater supplies, easily the largest source of drinking water for Tampa Bay area residents and the rest of Florida. The water authority provides water to local governments in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, including St. Petersburg and Tampa.

"Actually, our records show that this is one of the worst droughts since the early 1970s and that it's worse than the 1985 drought," said Richard Owen, planning director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, who had attended Korosy's presentation.

Owen said his agency's statistics are probably more dire because Swiftmud's 16-county region includes areas harder hit by the drought than the water authority's three-county region.

Especially hard hit are south Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties, where growers of row-crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers have been replanting _ and irrigating _ in the wake of the destructive Christmas freeze.

Groundwater monitor wells in those areas, some of them more than 50 years old, are setting all-time low readings every day, Owen said.

Swiftmud officials want to avoid even tighter water-use restrictions than those in place. Instead, they plan to concentrate on educating the public about the importance of adhering to the existing water regulations, he said. "During the next few weeks, we're going to try to elevate people's attention to the fact that there's a drought and that they need to increase their conservation efforts."

During her presentation, the water authority's Korosy said groundwater levels actually had been much lower than the 1984-85 drought until rains in December and early February brought conditions during the two dry spells into relative alignment.

If the parallels continue, she said, the Tampa Bay region can expect about half the rainfall it normally would receive during Florida's traditional springtime dry season.

"That's about the only worst-case projection that we want to make at this present time," Korosy said.

But "the significant difference between now and 1985 is that the authority and its (governmental) members are now producing about 20-million gallons per day more water," for the estimated 140,000 people who weren't here in 1985 who now live within the jurisdictions of the governments belonging to the authority.

Actually, twice that many more people _ about 280,000 _ now live in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties than did in 1985, according to Swiftmud's latest estimates. And even if they're not tapped into the water authority's pipeline network, everybody must have water, Owen said.

And, he added, if residential, agricultural and industrial users persist in the present rate of groundwater withdrawals as the drought intensifies, the region's coastal wells will become increasingly vulnerable to contamination from salt water, which is drawn into the freshwater aquifer along the coast. A number of coastal communities rely on those vulnerable wells for the bulk of their water.