Despite rebounding rainfall rates, area still faces drought


December rains capped a year in which local rainfall totals were above average for the first time since 1997. While the level of the Santa Fe River is still below normal because of the long-term rainfall deficit, Santa Fe Canoe Outpost owner Jim Wood isn't complaining. He's now able to launch canoes from his business location at the U.S. 441 bridge in High Springs, an unthinkable luxury in July when Wood surveyed the drought-parched riverbed.

JOHN MORAN/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 2:04 a.m.

Water is once again rippling through the upper Santa Fe River.

"Now that the water level has come back up, it's looking like a river again," Jim Wood said, reflecting on years of having to transport customers three miles downstream from his Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs. The trip was necessary to find water deep enough to offer his daily canoe or kayak float trips.

But Wood's optimism, and the Santa Fe's trickle, may both be short-lived.

After several years of drought, rainfall in North Central Florida returned to near normal levels in 2002, eclipsing recent year-end averages by as much as 9 inches in some areas, say state and local hydrologists. The year's total rainfall recorded at Gainesville Regional Airport was 54.80 inches.

But even as precipitation rates appear to be rebounding, area lakes, streams and groundwater reservoirs remain well below average. The result, despite short-term gains, is that long-term drought conditions may continue well into 2003.

Since 1992, annual rainfall in the Suwannee River and St. Johns River water management districts has been at or below average levels eight of 11 years, according to estimates by the water districts and the Florida Climate Center, a service of Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies.

But Alachua County and surrounding counties may be able to breathe a sigh of relief, at least for the time being.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville say rainfall levels are expected to climb through the first few months of 2003, partly because of a weak El Niņo weather pattern forming in the Pacific Ocean.

A Spanish reference to the Christ child, since it usually appears in the eastern tropical Pacific around Christmas, El Niņo is a periodic disturbance of ocean currents that warms global temperatures and increases rain in the southern United States.

Beyond March, however, rainfall predictions are less certain, forecasters say.

`So far behind'

Adding to this year's potential water woes, the Floridan aquifer, which serves as the area's primary source of drinking and irrigation water, remains 5 feet below normal in most areas because of the long lag time between rainfall and groundwater recharge.

"We've had more rain this past year," said Tom Mirti, a hydrologist with the Suwannee River Water Management District. "Things have looked relatively average since June."

"But we were so far behind that getting average rainfall doesn't catch you up," he added. "That doesn't put us out of the drought."

So while those dependent on surface and subsurface waters hope for the best in 2003, experience of years past may be their only reference.

Wood estimates that since 2000, his canoe rental business has been off by nearly 30 percent. To salvage his operation during the dry spell, the outpost he operates has been forced to move canoe and kayak trips three miles downstream, where water levels have remained sufficient for paddling.

But many would-be customers "just didn't come because they thought they're wasn't any water at all," he said.

The weak economy hasn't helped, Wood added, "but the main perpetrator was the perceived low water levels."

Wood isn't the only one who has suffered recently at the hands of parched Mother Nature.

At Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, heavy rains in 2002 failed to turn the tide on four years of drought, said Jim Weimer, the park's biologist.

"It's been fairly wet this year, but the surface wetlands are still particularly dry," Weimer said. Paynes Prairie, dominated by Alachua Lake and lowlands in the southwest and fed by Newnan's Lake in the northwest during periods of sufficient rainfall, has been dry since 1998, when heavy rains from the last El Niņo drenched the area.

Widely viewed as the strongest weather pattern ever measured, that year's El Niņo helped fill Newnan's and Orange lakes, in turn flooding the prairie.

Trees, grass in area suffering

Years of historic droughts also have hurt some of Gainesville's trees and other flora, city arborist Meg Niederhofer said.

For example, the lack of rain slowed some pine trees' ability to produce pitch, making them unable to ward off hard-to-kill pests such as the southern pine beetle.

"Along with global warming, the prolonged drought is stressing our trees," Niederhofer said.

"As a consequence, I think we are seeing more dead standing trees in the urban forests than we have in my 14 years as Gainesville's arborist."

And area farmers say they, too, have suffered, though not as heavily as those tending vegetation without the aid of irrigation.

"Last year, as a result of the dry weather, it was later in the year before pasture grass was available," said Bill Brown, director of the Alachua County Cooperative Extension Service. The delay meant that farmers had to feed hay to cattle later in the year, Brown said, "and that's expensive."

Still, while those dependent on Florida's wet weather are banking on heavy rains in 2003, at least one sector of Alachua County industry admits it is hoping otherwise.

"There has been no shortage of work," said Cliff Clark, owner of Clark Well Drilling in Gainesville, a business he says has been booming for years.

While Clark says he is sensitive to the financial and ecological ills suffered by many during the area's extended dry period, a well driller complaining about a lack of rain would be "like a politician saying too many people are voting."

Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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