Florida Getting ready as drought worsens

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Mar 16, 2001 - 07:09 PM

Getting ready as drought worsens

Want to know how serious the state's water shortage is? State officials are preparing emergency plans that call for importing tanker trucks full of water, borrowing portable desalination plants from the military and marshaling as much well-drilling equipment as possible. The officials rightly view the drought as a natural disaster, little different from a hurricane or tornado. If it continues, it threatens to leave many citizens without their most essential need: water.

Wells in some parts of West Central Florida have already gone dry. Saltwater seeping in from the Gulf threatens more coastal wells. The lack of substantial rainfall has also caused saltwater to flow far up rivers, where it can threaten municipal supplies.

The state, fortunately, is doing more than praying for a thousand cloudbursts. State officials are meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other Washington agencies to develop a strategy for promptly responding should there be widespread water shortages. So far the severe drought has victimized yards but mostly spared families. Government restrictions limit yard watering to one day a week - a small inconvenience considering the situation.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District says last year was the driest in its records, which date back to 1915. The state received only 35.77 inches of rainfall. The annual average is about 52 inches. The second-driest year was 1927 with 39 inches.

But the drought is not a one-year event. Scientists say that despite a few wet years, the rainfall average for the past decade is far below normal. Lakes throughout the region are exceptionally low. The underground aquifer, source of most of the region's drinking water, is up to 7 feet below normal low levels.

Beyond the threat to drinking-water supplies, the drought has turned the woods into a tinderbox, with wildfires such a threat that forestry officials have banned the use of all outdoor fires, even Boy Scout campfires.

Somewhat encouraging news on the horizon is that state climatologist Dr. James O'Brien of Florida State University expects a return to more normal rainfall patterns this summer. This will green yards and provide some relief to water suppliers, but, as O'Brien warns, it will scarcely replenish the region's water supply. That, he says, is going to take the prolonged deluge of a major tropical storm. And there is no predicting when that mixed blessing might occur.

People need to realize that forgoing a lush lawn is a trivial sacrifice compared with deprivations that could come if the drought worsens. It is both reassuring and extremely worrisome that the state is preparing for the worst.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 17, 2001

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