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Brief rain helpless against drought

Days of rain won't do it. The area needs weeks, if not months, of steady rainfall to pry loose the grip of this stubborn dry spell.

The rain will wash the pollen out of the air and off your car. It will green the grass and cheer those blooming oleanders.

It won't do a lick, however, for the drought.

Forecasters expect up to 2 inches of rain as a low-pressure system from the Gulf of Mexico continues to move through the Tampa Bay area today.

But the drought has become so dire that officials at Tampa Bay Water, which exceeded its daily limit on groundwater pumping nearly three weeks ago, say it could be up to two years before they can bring the pumping back into compliance.

"Even if the drought were to end today and be replaced by an El Nino-type of effect, we could not return to (permit compliance)," Jerry Maxwell, general manager of the regional water utility, told his board Monday as heavy rain fell outside.

Maxwell's disclosure came as the Southwest Florida Water Management District board prepares to vote today on an emergency order that would waive the permit cap for the duration of the drought, an extraordinary move prompted by two years of the driest weather since records were first kept in 1915.

Experts say that to ease the drought, the area needs weeks or months of the type of rain it has had the past two days.

Rainfall in west-central Florida was 14 inches short of normal last year, and this year has started the same way, according to measurements at Tampa International Airport.

Normal rainfall through Monday would be 7.15 inches, but this year the area has received just 3.93 inches.

That's why today, the first day of spring, Tampa Bay Water officials are seeking help.

The pumping permit issued by Swiftmud limits the amount of groundwater taken from the utility's 11 regional well fields to an average of 158-million gallons a day.

Tampa Bay Water needs Swiftmud's emergency order to sidestep what could potentially be millions of dollars in fines, and to protect its credit rating as it sells bonds to finance new water projects.

The proposed emergency order comes with dozens of strings attached, most of which are acceptable, Maxwell said.

But the sort of record keeping and reporting the order demands would require Tampa Bay Water to spend up to $500,000 in consulting fees.

The six member governments _ St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey and Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties _ would incur heavy fees oftheir own, a fact none of the board members liked.

During discussion of the emergency order by the Swiftmud board today, Tampa Bay Water will suggest several changes of language and an alteration of some reporting requirements to make compliance cheaper and easier.

"This is overkill," said Pinellas Commissioner Bob Stewart. "This is an overreach."

Tampa Bay Water also objects to language that says the emergency order will remain in effect until the Swiftmud board lifts it.

The agency will ask that the emergency order remain in effect at least until Dec. 31, 2002, when new sources of water, including the 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant, are scheduled to begin operation.

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Mail carrier Charles Harris, right, reaches over a stoop covered in houseplants Monday as he delivers mail to Shirley Miller in St. Petersburg. Miller brought the plants outside so they could take in some of the rain that pelted the bay area most of the day.

Lena Rodriguez of Tampa uses a grocery bag as a rain bonnet Monday as she prepares to make a dash for her car in the Kash n' Karry store parking lot on Armenia Avenue. "I'm just getting rid of a cold, and I don't want to start all over," she said.