June 20, 2008

Hillsborough River Low, So Tampa Water Bills Rise

By Neil Johnson, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jun. 20--TAMPA -- A tardy and fitful start to the summer rainy season and a dry end of spring mean the Hillsborough River is lower than it should be at this time in June, and Tampa water customers will see a small bump in bills because of it.

Unable to get enough from the Hillsborough River, the city had to turn to the regional water utility to meet demands of its water customers by purchasing nearly 285 million gallons from Tampa Bay Water in March, April and May.

A surcharge for the purchased water will appear on customer bills from July through September to make up for $640,000 the city paid the regional water wholesaler during the past three months.

The charge will add 4 cents for every 100 cubic feet of water customers use. That will add about 40 cents a month to the average residential bill for city residents.

Customers of the Tampa Water Department living outside city limits will pay slightly more.

The tab for purchased water this year will be far less than the same three months in 2007, when the average residential bill increased about $2.50 a month.

The city continues to buy water -- about 20 million gallons a day in June -- spending about $44,000 a day, but that should diminish as summer rains reduce the amount people use on lawns.

"We expect with the afternoon rains to cut that to nothing," said Elias Franco, spokesman for the water department.

It will take time, though, for the river to recover enough to meet the city's water demands because flow in the Hillsborough is about half what it should be this time of year.

At Morris Bridge Road, the river is less than 6 inches above a record low set in 1985. Upstream near Zephyrhills, the river is a few inches above a 1977 record low.

A U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Fowler Avenue has not worked for days, possibly because the river is too low to measure, said Todd Hamill, hydrologic forecaster at the Southeast River Forecast Center in Georgia.

Though the summer rainfall pattern seemed to be settling into place this week, rain is still spotty and has not reached the widespread coverage necessary to pull the river level up, Hamill said.

Rainfall this month across much of northeast Hillsborough County and southeast Pasco County, which make up the Hillsborough River watershed, is between 25 percent and 50 percent below normal.

It's the same story at Green Swamp, the river's headwaters.

The drop in water moving down the river is a complete flip from the start of May, when the flow was above normal.

Rain in the first week of April was bountiful, and rivers reflected the plentiful rain.

Flow in the Hillsborough by the end of April was 73 percent above normal.

A dry last three weeks of April and an arid May erased any surplus.

The city also has been getting 8 million to 10 million gallons a day from water treated during the rainy season and stored underground.

That supply, though, is about exhausted, Franco said. The city usually shuts down that source about the end of June and replenishes it during the rainy season.

The city gets its water from the river, the Tampa Bypass Canal and the stored supply, and buys the rest that it needs from Tampa Bay Water.

During the rainy season, Tampa sometimes has enough excess water to sell to Tampa Bay Water.

Although some rivers in the Tampa Bay region, such as the Alafia, fill quickly from rain, the Hillsborough River responds slowly, Hamill said.

A deluge of 5 to 8 inches over a couple of days would provide temporary relief, sending a slug of water down the river and raising the water level. But it wouldn't last.

"The river would rise quickly, but fall quickly, too," Hamill said.

If the summer rain pattern continues, it may take until July or even August to see a real improvement in the river system and groundwater levels, he said.

The low river has prompted the Temple Terrace River Watch Task Force to schedule a meeting Thursday to discuss the problem.

The meeting will start at 9 a.m. at Rotary Riverfront Park on Fowler Avenue.

Among the concerns for Temple Terrace: The river is too low for the city police marine unit to patrol it, and boat launches are above water.

The dry weeks of April and May also affected the Alafia, another river that Tampa Bay Water taps during the rainy season. Flow in the Alafia started June 67 percent below normal.

Water from the Hillsborough, Alafia and Tampa Bypass Canal fill Tampa Bay Water's reservoir in southern Hillsborough County during the rainy season.

The utility taps the reservoir during the dry season when it can't take water from the rivers.

In December, the reservoir had 11 billion gallons, 4 billion shy of capacity. At the start of June, 5 billion gallons remained.

Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7731 or [email protected]


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