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June rains can ease Tampa Bay's water consumption, but not its historic drought

Clouds hang over downtown Tampa as a plane taxis along the tarmac Tuesday, June 06, 2017 at Tampa International Airport. Rain continued to soak the Tampa Bay region Tuesday.
Published Jun. 7, 2017

This week's rains won't provide much respite from what some officials call the region's worst drought in a century.

But even just a few days of grey skies and steady rains can benefit a parched region.

Tampa Bay Water, the agency that manages the area's drinking water supply, said June's early showers have already dramatically slowed daily water consumption across the region.

By Tuesday, officials said their 11 well fields were pumping 50 million fewer gallons a day compared to what the region was consuming during the dry month of May.

That also coincided with water restrictions going into effect across the Tampa Bay region. But Tampa Bay Water sees the rain as sending an important signal to homeowners: they can turn off the sprinklers this week. Their lawns don't need to be watered this week, and maybe next week too.

GET READY FOR STORM SEASON: Check out the Tampa Bay Times 2017 Hurricane Preparedness Guide

"The biggest benefit that we've seen right now is a dramatic reduction in water demand," Acting Science and Technology Officer Warren Hogg said. "With the rain, people haven't been irrigating their yards and they're not using as much water as they were say last week."

That trend should continue this week. Tuesday's daytime and overnight showers were expected to produce 1-2 inches of rain, with storms redeveloping on Wednesday and possibly bringing another inch, said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Grant Gilmore.

[WTSP]

Check the latest Tampa Bay-area live radar:

By the end of the week, Gilmore said Tampa should pick up at least 2 more inches of rain. That's more than the 1.48 inches that fell in all of May.

There's an even greater disparity out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which has already recorded 4.87 inches of rain in the first week of June, according to the National Weather Service. By comparison, the airport only received 2.76 inches during May.

The forecast calls for even more rain in the coming days. Thundershowers and persistent rain could return Wednesday while the chances of rain dips by Friday.

"By Thursday night, a cold front will push through the bay area which will usher in slightly drier air for Friday," Gilmore said. "This allows for only a 30 percent chance of rain on Friday, our lowest chance of rain over the next seven days."

But the moisture ramps back up from the south by Saturday, Gilmore said, increasing the chances of showers and storms.

While June is the official start of the rainy (and storm) season, this latest string of storms — originating with moisture that moves in off the Gulf of Mexico — are not typical summertime storms.

"Usually summer storms will travel east to west, not west to east," said National Weather Service forecaster Paul Close. "This is not a typical summertime pattern at all, this is more of a winter-spring pattern."

A dry spring also helped fuel the rash of wildfires that have spent weeks burning across the state, especially in Pasco County, prompting minor evacuations and road closures. Across the state, wildfires have consumed 189,000 acres.

But while the recent rains can benefit a drought- and wildfire-stricken bay area, it cannot do much to alleviate those conditions.

Gilmore said the drought index estimates the Tampa Bay area still needs another 9 inches to fall in the coming weeks and months to be considered drought-free.

The effects of the drought can be seen at the 15.5-billion gallon C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, which can hold a maximum of 15.5 billion gallons.

During the drought, Tampa Bay Water officials said it has fallen to just 5.5 billion gallons. However, officials were actually pleased that it hasn't fallen even further.

"It's performed tremendously for us in this drought and dry season," Hogg said of the reservoir.

Officials expect it will take the full rainy season to recharge the aquifer and the reservoir. They expect the reservoir to be back up to 15.5 billion gallons by the end of the rainy season in October.

Hogg called this the "driest dry season the Tampa area has seen in about 100 years." But it is not the most prolonged drought the region has experienced. That was in 2007-09, when the drought stretched across three whole years.

But 2017 dry season, he said, will be one for the record books.

"This was no typical year for this part of Florida," Hogg said. "This was extraordinarily dry."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or. Follow @sara_dinatale. Contact Samantha Putterman at sputterman@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @samputterman.

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