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TOUR OF DRIED-UP LAKES SHOWS DROUGHT'S FORCE

It's as if someone took a giant straw and sucked all the water out of Crews Lake. Millions of gallons just disappeared.

The wooden pier that once extended into 20 feet of water stands high and dry. It has been like that for the past year. Over at the closed boat ramp, 15-foot-tall dog fennel flourishes where anglers once launched boats.

A prolonged drought has reduced Crews Lake, once one of Pasco's largest bodies of water, into a rolling prairie. When you climb to the top of the lookout tower at the county park and look out to the horizon, it makes you want to pray for rain and turn off those lawn sprinklers.

"This is drastic," said Richard Gant of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Two years of below normal rainfall has kept Gant responding to complaints of dried-up lakes. He took me on a tour earlier this week to see for myself.

We tend to dismiss the idea of a drought when it rains like it did last week, turning the city of Zephyrhills into a flood zone. It's kind of like freezing in Denver while discussing global warming.

But this ground is thirsty. Dropping lake levels is one of the more obvious signs. Hancock Lake, near the Pasco-Hernando county line, has also lost much of its luster. You can wade across to an island of cattails.

We average 53 inches of rainfall a year. But in the area where these lakes have gone dry, there were 43 inches in 2006 and 41 inches in 2007.

Flood and drought come and go like the seasons. Gant has been monitoring lakes since 1979 and vividly remembers worse droughts in 1996 and 2000-2001. But what's different about the present drought isn't the severity of the water shortage, but rather the acuteness of the demand. There are more water taps being turned on, more lawns to irrigate.

"It's like a checking account," Gant said. "When you have a deficit in rainfall and you have more pumping, it only makes matters worse."

Forecasters are predicting a dryer than normal winter and spring. Add to that another forecast most of you won't find very appealing: dry, dead lawns.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at askerritt@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

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