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  1. Hernando

Withlacoochee River water levels are rising. Here's why.

Water levels have risen on the Little Withlacoochee River and the main Withlacoochee River due to above-average rainfall in June and July. This has caused flooding on properties near the river, such as 26-year-old Tyra Crispin’s Ridge Manor yard. [Courtesy of Tyra Crispin]
Published Aug. 6

RIDGE MANOR — Water from the Little Withlacoochee River crept into Tyra Crispin's backyard so quickly from Saturday to Sunday that she didn't have time to move anything. The flooding occurred within hours and reached the headlights of her boyfriend's 1970s Ford truck. It was worse than after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Hernando County sent out an alert Monday that the Withlacoochee River is "nearing flood stage" and is being monitored. The river level is not expected to reach the "minor flood stage," but the county is uncertain how much the river will continue to rise during the upcoming rainy season. Officials said that those who live in and around Lacoochee, Talisman Estates, Riverdale and River Height Estates should prepare for possible action.

But those who live on the Little Withlacoochee River, which stems from the main river and forms the border of Hernando and Sumter counties, already have seen flooding this week, said Mark Fulkerson, a senior professional engineer at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The main Withlacoochee River flows from the Green Swamp north to the Gulf of Mexico in Yankeetown, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The 157-mile stream flows through Hernando, Pasco, Citrus, Marion, Sumter and Levy counties.

Pasco County hasn't had flooding recently around the Withlacoochee River, said Tambrey Laine, the county's emergency management spokeswoman. But there has been standing water in Zephyrhills and Land O' Lakes due to the long periods of heavy rain. The county always monitors areas of concern, she said, and has sandbag stations available for those who may need them.

RELATED: Hurricane 2019: Hernando isn't preparing for one disaster. It's getting ready for two.

In east Hernando County, Crispin, 26, spent Monday home from work, trying to call representatives at the Water Management District. She talked to her neighbor across the river, who Crispin said also had water coming up to her home.

"I'm terrified," she said. "I hope we don't have any other hard rain."

Areas like Crispin's are flooding due to heavy rains from last Thursday and Friday that fell where the soil was already saturated by previous rains, Fulkerson said. This has caused roads to be underwater and access to some homes cut off due to the rising waters. The district had about half a dozen calls from people experiencing flooding there as of Monday, which Fulkerson said he considered significant because the area is sparsely populated.

The soil saturation is due to above average rainfall in June and July in areas around the Withlacoochee River, Fulkerson said. This has increased flows in the main river, but it has remained below flood stage, unlike the smaller river that is seeing flooding equal to or higher than what occurred during Hurricane Irma.

However, there is still a concern for those who live on the main river, because if a tropical storm like Irma were to come this year, the impacts could be more damaging due to the already high water levels.

"No one has any control over the water in the Withlacoochee," Fulkerson said. "Almost every drop of rain is making its way off the surface to the river."

The District monitors these areas and provides data to the affected counties' emergency management offices.

RELATED: Hurricane Irma swamped east Hernando County last year. After a rainy summer, Withlacoochee River flooding could be even worse.

Those who live in high risk flood zones must prepare for the potential of higher waters and have the proper flood insurance, Fulkerson said. Locals can sign up for informational updates from the District's website. They can also email the District if they are experiencing problems. If people can't get out of their homes due to flooding, they should contact emergency services.

People also can look at the National Weather Service's Southeast River Forecast Center for updates. Fulkerson said people who live on the Withlacoochee River should be aware that it takes time for the high water levels to travel downstream. Flooding at the Green Swamp may take days or weeks to peak farther downstream.

"The river is really doing what the river is supposed to do with this amount of rain. This is how the river functions," he said. "Unfortunately, that impacts people's properties."

Contact Paige Fry at pfry@tampabay.com. Follow @paigexfry.

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