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WEATHER EXTREMES // Dry season barely here and water worries begin

Like spring, the dry season arrived before its time.

That has Tampa Bay water officials on edge, praying for rain and wondering how the region will fare in April, typically the driest month of the year.

"We're really held hostage to rainfall," said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District in Brooksville. "There would have to be an awful lot of rain to get us out of it. Until we can develop alternative sources, we're going to have to do what we can to stretch it."

The combination of chamber of commerce weather, and people taking advantage of it, is putting Tampa Bay's resources to a stern test. While water officials are stopping short of declaring a drought, they are concerned about the long-term effects of declining water levels, particularly in the aquifer.

Statistics paint a grim picture, though officials say it is too early to predict permanent environmental damage.

Water levels in some lakes are a foot below where they should be in May.

Forestry officials have fought 152 brush fires in three months.

The region gets about 8 inches of rain through March. So far this year, there has been only 2.89 inches. April only averages 1.15 inches.

The "wet season" doesn't start until June.

And, simply put, we're using too much water.

The average March water use for Tampa Bay is 220-million gallons per day. This year, residents in most of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties used an average of 245.6-million gallons per day, peaking March 9 with 293-million gallons.

To experts, it makes sense: The nice weather means people are outside and using more water.

"Your lawn may be green, but the environment somewhere is thirsty," said Michelle Klase, spokeswoman for the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Residents already are under Swiftmud watering restrictions. Though more rules are not in the forecast, officials are monitoring the weather and the region's water supply.

They also are spending time and money spreading a message of conservation, trying to reform those who water lawns after a rain shower or leave the water running while brushing teeth.

Swiftmud is running more than $100,000 worth of radio public service announcements. The regional water supply authority sent out 8,000 packets to newcomers to teach them about conserving.

Among the experts' advice:

Fix leaks. Replace shower heads with low-flow fixtures. Don't burn any trash. Don't pour water down the drain if it can be put to another use, such as watering or cleaning. Take shorter showers. Don't flush the toilet unnecessarily. Don't overwater your lawn.

Lawn watering is prohibited from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to Swiftmud regulations. Addresses ending in an even number may water Tuesday or Saturday; addresses ending in an odd number may water Wednesday or Sunday.

Some counties impose watering restrictions that are stricter than Swiftmud's. For more information, contact your city or county's utilities department or call Swiftmud's water restriction hot line at (800) 848-0499.