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Is it rainy season yet? Tampa Bay is experiencing severe drought conditions

But coming rain and extensive water stores should lessen drought effects, experts say.
 
Dry grass is pictured as a result of drought, Friday in St. Petersburg.
Dry grass is pictured as a result of drought, Friday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published July 27, 2023|Updated July 29, 2023

Every summer, Tampa Bay residents have come to expect daily downpours as they rush to their vehicles after work.

But an especially dry start to 2023 hasn’t yet given way to the typical pattern of summertime storms. Portions of Southwest Florida and the Tampa Bay area are experiencing severe and extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Coastal Pinellas and southern Hillsborough counties are seeing the worst impact locally.

What might be the hottest July on record, Saharan dust bringing dry air and a westerly wind pattern are all playing their parts in a delayed rainy season, experts say.

But a reprieve from the dry heat is expected to last through this weekend as a “tropical wave” of rain reaches Tampa Bay. The rain could drop the month’s average temperatures, blocking the chances of a new record for July heat. The expected showers will improve drought conditions some, according to Rodney Wynn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office. But a prolonged pattern of rainfall would bring the most benefits.

A changing wind from the east should bring showers to the area next week, too, Wynn said.

As of Thursday, southwest Florida has received 37% less rain than the typical July monthly average of 8 inches, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Much of southwest Florida is under a drought warning, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions can range from "abnormally dry" to "exceptional drought." Southern parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties are currently experiencing severe drought conditions.
Much of southwest Florida is under a drought warning, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions can range from "abnormally dry" to "exceptional drought." Southern parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties are currently experiencing severe drought conditions. [ U.S. Drought Monitor ]

This has affected water levels in underground aquifers — part of the state’s largest drinking water source — which fell about 30% lower than last July’s levels. But in Tampa Bay, aquifer levels are currently the highest across the water district.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility, said a stretch of showers at the end of June helped fill local water reserves. Last month’s rainfall was double the normal average, releasing about 4 1/2 inches into the Tampa Bay area, said Warren Hogg, the utility’s chief science officer.

“That was enough to make the local rivers flow really well,” he said. “So we started putting water back in the reservoir.”

Hogg says the reservoir is the utility’s “water savings account,” storing 15 1/2 billion gallons of water not for a rainy day, but for especially dry ones. The reservoir, about the size of 15 Tropicana Fields, has a 5-mile circumference and is typically drawn from during dry spring months.

The 1,100-acre C. W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in Hillsborough County holds 15 billion gallons of water and helps the region during dry spells. [Tampa Bay Water]
The 1,100-acre C. W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in Hillsborough County holds 15 billion gallons of water and helps the region during dry spells. [Tampa Bay Water]

Hogg said despite current drought conditions, the utility’s water sources — including reservoir stores, aquifer groundwater and water drawn from the Hillsborough River — mean there is still plenty of water to go around.

“Eventually, the summer rainy pattern will return,” Hogg said. “We’ve still got over two months of our rainy season left.”

Wynn said the expected rainy pattern could last through the weekend and into next week.

“It’ll improve the drought conditions, of course,” Wynn said. “If we stay in this pattern.”