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Rain boosts groundwater to high mark

The stormy weekend weather that hurled tornadoes around West Central Florida also brought enough rain to boost groundwater levels to their highest in years.

A biweekly groundwater report released Wednesday shows an aquifer that is in about its best condition since the index began almost three years ago.

"Right now, (ground) water levels are about as high as they're going to get this year. From here, they start dropping off," said Granville Kinsman, manager of hydrological collection for Swiftmud, the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

On a scale of 0 to 100, the groundwater in Swiftmud's northern area, including Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, jumped from 24 to 41, a "fair" rating. To the south, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, a "good" rating of 63 in late September climbed to another "good" rating of 71, just shy of the record 78 during June 1991.

But the good news likely will be short-lived. Groundwater levels likely will decline with the end of Florida's rainy season and the beginning of the winter growing season, when big irrigation pumps crank up.

The improved groundwater levels are a result of several summer storms and last weekend's turbulent weather from the Gulf of Mexico.

"The rains we got back in June really started the whole thing," Kinsman said, recalling how two days of non-stop storms dumped more than 20 inches of rain in some areas south of Tampa Bay.

Last weekend's rain dropped more than 9 inches in Crystal River, 6 inches in Inverness, 5 inches in St. Petersburg and Brooksville, and 2 inches in Tampa.

Eighty percent of the water used in west-central Florida comes from the ground. Public water utilities, agriculture and industry are the three biggest users.

With an average annual rainfall of about 53 inches needed to recharge the aquifer, water always seemed in abundant supply until recent years. Now the big three user groups regularly find themselves in disputes over access to groundwater.

Three years ago, Swiftmud officials devised a groundwater index so users could see how much stress the aquifer was under throughout the year.

The index reflects dozens of water well measurements throughout Swiftmud's 16-county region, and those wells have begun to show that the recent rain is replenishing the aquifer.