Florida Drought taking toll on residents

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Drought taking toll on residents

As the aquifer drops to 2.8 feet below normal, a number of homeowners with wells are turning on the tap, but water is not coming out. By ALEX LEARY

St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


FLORAL CITY -- Around the same time Gov. Jeb Bush was comparing the state's water shortage to California's power crisis, residents at a mobile home park here were finishing supplies of bottled water.

Ordinarily, most of them would not drive to the supermarket for something they could get for free (or at least a lot cheaper) from the kitchen faucet. But the alternative put more than a few off.

"I thought it was sand or something," Bob Travis, a 62-year-old retiree, said of the cloudy water that came from his tap.

The wells supplying Castle Lake Park off U.S. 41 were not contaminated; they were full of air. The water table had dropped so low that pumps used to supply more than 100 homes were no longer fully submerged and began sucking air, which gave the tap water a milky look.

"I discovered if you let it sit for a few minutes, it would clear up," Travis said.

The problem, fixed by dropping the pumps lower into the well, underscored the severity of the drought, which Bush described at a water summit in Tampa last week as "a crisis, not a potential crisis."

A spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management said the Floral City case, which was mentioned in a statewide drought report, is perhaps the first known example of a utility-owned water source showing signs of drying up.

It may not be the last.

The aquifer that supplies water to this region is 2.8 feet below normal, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Last year, concerns arose when the Withlacoochee River was flowing 105 cubic feet of water per second. This month the flow rate dropped to 70.

"The water levels are going to continue to worsen over the next three months unless we get some very unusual rainfall that no one right now is predicting," said Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan.

Frustrated that water conservation efforts have had only marginal success, the Division of Emergency Management is preparing for disaster, much in the way it would for a hurricane.

It has held conferences with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the various water management districts across the state to develop a contingency plan.

Possibilities include using portable reverse osmosis systems and desalination. Emergency Management is "identifying every resource we can, every avenue we can to have a game plan together. There could be victims of this if it gets worse," said spokesman Jim Loftus.

'I think people do not recognize the severity of this as of yet," Loftus added. "It's hard to get people to understand how severe it is as long as the water is coming out the tap."

The company that manages the Castle Lake Park's water system said the problem has passed but it is considering several additional steps, including drilling a new well and adding awater storage tank.

It also will intensify its efforts to educate residents about conservation, urging them to install special shower heads and limit the times they water their lawn and wash their vehicles.

"We're trying to be way ahead of the game," said regional manager Glenn Labrecque.

While public water supplies have yet to be affected by the drought, contractors have been swamped with work in recent weeks for wells serving single homes. They are scrambling to lower pumps at private wells and replace those that have gone bone dry.

"The lack of water is doing a number of everybody's well," said Laura Rinier, part owner of Able Well Drilling in Hernando.

Olga Morton of Aquatek in Floral City said her tiny company is repairing or replacing 10 wells because of the drought and more work is being phoned in every day.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 08, 2001

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