You’ll Never Know … How Dry I Am … in Central Florida.

Could the ground eventually dry up this badly across Central Florida? Dry weather conditions have Swiftmud nervous. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

BROOKSVILLE – If the issuance of a Phase III order doesn’t mean much to you, chances are you’re not a homeowner who likes to water their well maintained lawn in the dry winter months, or power wash their car.
But for residents of northern counties in Central Florida – including Lake County – a Phase III order by the Southwest Florida Water Management District means lawn and landscape watering will be reduced to once a week starting March 10 on a specified day, based on the homeowner’s address.
“Low rainfall levels will equate to low lake levels, low river levels, and low aquifer levels,” said Robin Felix, media relations manager for Swiftmud. “So we’re seeing all of our water resources are experiencing impacts of lowered water levels. Things are the worst in our northern counties, and we’ve been in a Phase I water shortage since the end of 2010. Phase I is our lowest level of water shortage, and is really meant to be a heads up to let people know things could get worse, and to conserve, and to get the utilities to be ready in case we do have to require them to do more enforcement. Our whole 16 county area had been in that Phase I since 2010, and it’s been extended several times.”
Now Swiftmud’s northern region has been placed under a Phase III water shortage order due to below normal rainfall this winter. The Governing Board for the district — which is based in Brooksville — voted on Feb. 29 to declare the Phase III order for northern counties that include Lake, Sumter and The Villages development in Lake and Marion counties. A Modified Phase I alert remains in effect for the remaining counties in the District’s region, including Polk County.
This isn’t just a recommendation or an effort to educate people about the benefits of conservation. A Phase III order gives local law enforcement agencies the power to immediately issue citations instead of warnings for first offenses.
“Groundwater levels have been critically below normal for more than 12 weeks now, and river and lake levels are so low that some boat ramps have been closed,” said Lois Sorensen, Swiftmud’s demand management program manager. “Everyone needs to do their part.”
A Phase III order still allows people to do things like hand watering of non-lawn areas, although like all irrigation, it needs to be done before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.
As Felix noted, the order was issued because groundwater and surface water conditions have gotten considerably worse since the beginning of the year, due to a significant lack of rainfall.
“We look at a number of factors,” she said. “We look at rainfall, we look at rivers, we look at aquifer levels, and we look at climate predictions. Right now, over the last about four months, we should have received about nine inches of rainfall, and we only received about three inches. As a result, we are in our normal dry season right now, but we’re seeing things even lower than they would normally be. It is expected to be dryer than normal to the end of spring, probably the end of May.”
Because of that, Swiftmud’s 16 counties are still under the Phase I order, which means lawn and landscape watering remains limited to a two-day-per-week schedule, and residents can only water before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Phase I counties include Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota.
“We usually look at things by region,” Felix said. “In Polk County — which we really lump in with the Tampa Bay area — we’re seeing what we call severely abnormal water levels in the Peace River in Bartow.”

Lakes are very pretty, but below normal rainfall means the water in them is getting very low. (Photo by Dave Raith).

The dry conditions have also created problems in Lake County, where the Lake County Public Safety Department just issued a countywide burn ban in February to prevent the possible spread of wildfires due to the lack of rain. Dry fields become highly susceptible to the quick spread of fires.
“In the northern area, things are even drier and things are worse, so we recommended that we go to a tighter Phase III order,” Felix said. “In the northern counties, there’s a real clear connection between what happens on the surface and what happens in the ground water and lake levels. So we are going to one day a week watering restrictions in those northern counties.”
The order extends through June 30, even though June 1 marks the start of the rainy season.
By extending the order until the end of the month, “That gives us a chance to see if the summer rainy season will set up and we’ll go back to normal rain levels,” Felix said.
Another problem for northern counties, she said, is that water utilities and other large users there don’t have access to water stored in reservoirs and aquifer storage and recovery well-fields like the utilities in the central and southern counties of the district. That’s why Phase III also includes restrictions on other outdoor water use activities, such as pressure washing of a car — which is now completely prohibited.
For more information about water restrictions and water conservation, log on to the Swiftmud website at www.WaterMatters.org/conservation or call 1-800-423-1476.

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