Sentinel Staff Writer
December 26, 2008
Florida should brace for another drought in 2009.
The Climate Prediction Center shows a big part of Florida -- from near Tallahassee to Lake Okeechobee -- will be withering in a dry spell by early spring. The federal agency's experts think sparse rainfall will persist across much of the Southeast until late spring.
It would be the state's fourth year in a row for drought, and the eighth this decade.
State officials are standing by with response plans that include increasingly strict restrictions on water use.
"The outlook through May isn't particularly good," said hydrologist Tom Mirti at the St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka.
The Orlando area might be parched now if it weren't for a taste in August of the record-setting downpours of Tropical Storm Fay.
Most of Florida was doused by Fay's rains, especially Fort Pierce, Melbourne and southwest Volusia County, where neighborhoods were flooded by as much as 2 feet of rainfall.
But the region that Fay swerved around -- the greater Tampa Bay area -- is now worried about its shrinking supply of drinking water.
Dave Bracciano, demand-management coordinator at Tampa Bay Water, said Fay and other tropical storms dumped only about an inch of moisture in the area.
The C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, a key source of water, is critically low. An artificial lake in Hillsborough County fed by the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers, the reservoir should be holding 6 billion to 7 billion gallons but has less than half that much.
Bracciano is encouraging area residents not to turn on their lawn sprinklers at all during the next two months.
The prediction for more drought in 2009 is based partly on the growing likelihood of cooling waters of the Pacific Ocean along the equator.
That well-studied phenomenon, called La Ni�a by scientists, is a global shift in climate that includes a decrease in rainfall across Southern states.
Another reason for next year's drought forecast comes from a look at the past 15 years of rainfall in Florida and the Southeast, said Mike Halpert at the Climate Prediction Center in Maryland.
In short, the region has been experiencing a trend of drier weather since the mid-1990s. What's causing it and when it will end aren't clear.
Halpert said weather science isn't advanced or precise enough to blame the rainfall decline on climate changes that are linked to pollution-induced global warming.
Florida might simply be in a dry cycle of a natural, long-term swing in rainfall patterns, said Halpert, who held out a bit hope that drought might not emerge in the coming year.
"I'll be the first to admit that these forecasts aren't perfect."
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.