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June's heavy rains wash away Florida's severe drought

Storms move in from the southwest over downtown St. Petersburg on June 2, 2017, with much needed rain. The view is looking northwest from Albert Whitted Park.
Published Jun. 29, 2017

One of Florida's most severe droughts has been washed away in only a month.

This month's colossal rainfall wiped out what meteorologists call the "severe conditions" that just weeks ago covered 15 percent of the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"It was the right type of rain," said Tampa Bay Water Interim Science and Technology Officer Warren Hogg. "It was an almost every-day, long-soaking rain ... one that really allows the environment to benefit."

It was badly needed relief from what the Southwest Florida Water Management District has called one of the state's worst droughts in a century.

The last time so much of Florida was that dry was in June 2012, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore. This is also the first time in nearly a year that Florida is free of even the most modest dry conditions.

Thank June's drought-busting rains for that.

"It's pretty significant," Gilmore said. "This was the worst drought since 2012 and we were pulled out of it in one month."

Each year, the hope is that the dry winter and spring will be balanced by the following rainy season. But that's not guaranteed. Gilmore said after the 2015 dry season, the drought lasted through most of the summer.

Droughts aren't measured by just metrics, said National Weather Service hydrologist Eric Oglesby. They're also measured by impact. The U.S. Drought Monitor produces a weekly map of national drought conditions from 350 sources, combining observations along with weather and climate data.

The drought effects that meteorologists survey range from stream flows to fire danger –– both of which have recovered significantly throughout June's heavy rains, Oglesby said.

A statewide drought group made up of meteorologists discusses those impacts on a weekly basis, Oglesby said, to determine if they should raise or lower drought levels. Their weekly reports are posted online.

"We start off by looking at how much below-normal rain we've had over a period of time, and then if we've had enough to get rid of the drought's effects," Oglesby said. "We don't necessarily have to make up all the deficit rain to actually exit a drought, it's really impact-based. All those things weigh into the determination."

The drought monitor uses levels "D0" to "D4" to define how bad conditions are. The "D0" is the lowest designation at "abnormally dry." The highest, D4, means "exceptional drought."

Last week, the drought monitor's Florida map showed "abnormally dry" conditions from Pinellas County stretching east to the Atlantic coast, crossing Hillsborough, Polk, Osceola and Brevard counties. There was also a small sliver up north, affecting 3.9 million Floridians.

But this week's map, released Thursday, showed no dry conditions.

And it's all thanks to June. This month, 7.65 inches of rain fell at Tampa International Airport — about an inch above normal for the month, according to the weather service. Even more rain fell at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport: a whopping 17.5 inches, 11.12 inches above normal.

"Its a good example on how some places really get so much more rain than others," said Gilmore. "That said, everyone has gotten more than enough rainfall to take us out the drought."

By comparison, Tampa International only saw 1.48 inches in the entire month of May while St. Pete Clearwater received 2.76 inches.

The water management district, commonly known as Swiftmud, said watering restrictions will remain in effect until Aug. 1. Swiftmud officials also pointed out that it shouldn't affect anyone anyway, because there was no need to water lawns in June.

Tampa Bay Water, the agency that manages the area's drinking water supply, said June's showers dramatically reduced daily water consumption across the region and returned most rivers to normal levels.

During the drought, the agency said the 15.5-billion gallon C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir had fallen to just 5 billion gallons. Now they expect the rainy season to refill it.

"We should be able to refill the reservoir entirely by the end of the summer into early fall so we're full and ready for the next dry season," Hogg said.

The drought also fueled Florida's furious wildfires: 2,506 fires burned 250,508 across the parched state. That's the most acreage burned since 2011, according to the state, and more than the total acres burned in 2012 through 2016 combined.

Locally the wildfires hit Pasco County the hardest. There, just a few thousand burning acres in the Starkey Wilderness Preserve were enough to close schools and roads, threaten neighborhoods and fill the skyline with smoke.

While the end of the drought helps fire conditions, said Florida Forest Service spokeswoman Judith Tear, it doesn't end the risks. The drought left plenty of dry fuel out there ready to be ignited by summer lightning.

"We have seen a drop in activity, but our fire season is all year long," she said. "We anticipate more fires with the rain and afternoon thunderstorms. They can still produce fires. Some of that fuel, all those pine needles and grasses, that can all dry in an hour even if we get significant rain.

"Florida can dry out pretty fast."

Contact Samantha Putterman at sputterman@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @samputterman.

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