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As the rains fall behind, water demand wells up

The high pressure system parked over Florida for most of the last week has raised the pressure on local water systems.

The West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, the region's largest water utility, said Wednesday that water use in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties has soared by anywhere from 22-million to 43-million gallons a day over last year's average.

"Authority officials encourage all Tampa Bay area residents to continue conserving water throughout the summer rainy season," West Coast said. "Even during dry periods . . . most Florida lawns require watering only twice per week. This irrigation schedule should be reduced when showers occur."

Between last Saturday and Tuesday, water use in the tri-county area ranged from 241-million to 262-million gallons a day. During the last "water year," which runs from July 1 to June 30, the average daily use was 219-million gallons.

Generally, water use falls dramatically during the summer rainy season. And rainfall for 1996 was averaging well above normal until the mid-July mini-drought.

Last July, for example, the official rainfall total was more than 10 inches. The average for the month is about 6.5 inches. This year, July has seen fewer than 3 inches.

It isn't that the region is running short of water. The first six months of the year were so wet, in fact, that even if no more rain fell during July, the region would be only 12 inches short of the average rainfall for an entire year.

The problem is that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has limited pumping in West Coast's system to a daily average of 216-million gallons. The goal is to allow the aquifer from which most of the area's drinking water comes to recover after several years of drought.

Huge fines are the penalty for violating that order.

Water use always rises in the winter and spring months, when the area population swells with seasonal residents and tourists and the rains generally taper off.

West Coast counts on conservation and heavy rainfall to drive down consumption in the summer and bring the region under the ceiling imposed by the water management district.

Although showers may return today, the probability for rain over the next four days is 40 percent or less.