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Recent rains might not mean looser water restrictions, experts say

Alessi Selvage, 15, of Port Richey, left, and her friend Amber Jenkins, 16, of Palm Harbor are drenched last week after being caught in storm while walking home from a store in Port Richey. Heavy rains since May have increased the water supply, experts said, and it’s likely that the water shortage classification will be downgraded by the end of the month.
Published Jul. 9, 2013

All the rain dumped on Pasco County this summer could provide some benefits besides just cleaning your car.

The bay area is currently in Phase 3 (out of 4) of a "regional supply shortage," a designation by Tampa Bay Water that means the water supply is low. It's been that way since mid March.

But heavy rains since May have increased the supply, experts said, and it's likely that the classification will be downgraded to Phase 2 by the end of July.

If rain patterns hold at normal levels, Tampa Bay Water permitting manager Warren Hogg said, residents might see the area reach the lowest phase toward the end of summer.

Less-than-average rainfall from October to May created the water shortage, Hogg said.

Normally, the backup cache of water in an above-ground reservoir softens the blow of a dry spell. But the reservoir has been closed for repairs since January, Tampa Bay Water spokesman Brandon Moore said. It will partially reopen next summer.

Tampa Bay Water, which provides water to local governments including Pasco County and New Port Richey, pulls water from three sources: local rivers, the Floridan aquifer and desalinated seawater.

Florida law limits water use from the aquifer, and Hogg said Tampa Bay Water can only pull water from the designated rivers when they've reached certain levels. That's easier now.

So, what does a greater water supply mean for Pasco residents?

Probably nothing immediate, Hogg said. A larger supply does not necessarily mean that watering restrictions will ease up right away.

Residents can likely skip watering their lawns altogether, though, with this kind of weather.

"We tell people, 'Use the water that you need, but don't waste it,'" Hogg said. It will also save money, he said.

Annual budgets set water rates, so don't expect those to change this summer, he warned.

Two organizations set water restrictions: the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, sets rules for a region that includes parts of 17 counties, and local governments within those regions can set tighter rules.

Pasco restricts lawn-watering to one day each week (two for reclaimed water), even if the water shortage is classified as less serious. Residents should check with utilities first, Hogg said, before they change their watering patterns.

Residents can visit tampabaywater.org/watersmarter and plug in their ZIP codes to find watering restrictions.

Roberta Starks, chief of Swiftmud's data collection bureau, said a few heavy rains can't completely cancel out a water deficit. But the summer rains are a good start.

Swiftmud's governing board, which meets July 30, sets the water restrictions based on what the staff recommends after gathering information about rainfall amounts and how they compare to historic totals.

The last 12 months have been about six inches short of the historic rainfall average, but Starks cautioned that this number is always a moving target. A few rainy weeks could change it.

The first eight days of July yielded an average of 3.7 inches, she said. That's about 45 percent of the average for all of July.

The bay area might see even more rains this weekend, if Tropical Storm Chantal follows early projections and soaks the state.

It's too early to predict the effects of the storm, Hogg said. Wind and flooding can create problems. In general, though, he likes the wetter days.

"A rainy day is a beautiful day," he said.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie contributed to this report. Clare Lennon can be reached at clennon@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6262. Follow her on Twitter: @clarelennon.

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