Drought vs deluge: Florida's unusual rainfall totals either too little or too much on each coast

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida was a tale of two states this year in precipitation totals, with the southeastern coast inundated by sometimes record rainfall and much of the Gulf of Mexico coast experiencing drought.

Counties on Florida's west side have new restrictions on water use, especially in an area where the water table has fallen so low that wells could dry up. Now Florida's wettest season is over until late spring.

What's happening in Florida could soon become a reality elsewhere as farmers and residents increasingly deal with changes in weather patterns due to climate change. This means higher temperatures in the summer, more powerful hurricanes and other heavier rainstorms and droughts during unexpected seasons.

“You know, as the climate changes, we're going to have to adapt to these extremes,” said Dan Durica, board member of Tampa's Sweetwater Organic Community Farm. “And so you need to know how to deal with the rise and crisis of climate chaos.”

For most people, the restrictions affect the watering of lawns and landscapes, which accounts for about half of the water used daily in the affected areas. For example, three counties around Tampa Bay allow watering only one day a week, depending on the resident's address, and only then before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.

“The entire west coast of Florida has been affected by this shortage of rainfall during the rainy season,” said Mark Elsner, chief of the water supply agency for the South Florida Water Management District. “Because the West Coast is in about a 30% deficit, we didn't get the replenishment we expected. And as a result, we have lower groundwater levels from the dry season onwards.”

The main cause of the precipitation gap was a weaker-than-normal high-pressure system over the western Atlantic Ocean this summer, which led to persistently lighter easterly winds, said Robert Molleda of the National Weather Service office in Miami.

“This wind pattern tends to concentrate most of the precipitation on the interior and eastern side of the peninsula, rather than a more typical easterly wind pattern that would concentrate much of the daily summer thunderstorms over the western half of the peninsula,” Molleda said . in an email.

In mid-November, an unnamed storm with gusts approaching tropical storm strength lashed Miami, Fort Lauderdale and nearby areas with measurements of nearly a foot of rain over three days. In the Florida Keys, the city of Marathon set an all-time daily record for November, when 7 inches of rain fell in one day.

In April, a storm over Fort Lauderdale dumped nearly 2 feet (63.5 centimeters) of rain in some areas, flooding many neighborhoods. And just in the past 90 days, many parts of South Florida have flooded again, receiving between 150% and 200% of average precipitation, according to the weather service.

On the Gulf Coast it's a different story. The drought has been going on for months. All or parts of 14 provinces are subject to water use restrictions imposed by two water management districts. These began last week and will remain in place until July, agency documents show. This affects everything from watering lawns to golf courses, landscaping and agriculture.

“Any wasteful water use, such as hosing down driveways and impervious surfaces, which allows water to flow unattended and uses water in a highly inefficient manner, is prohibited,” the Southwest Florida Water Management District website says.

Violators may be fined varying amounts depending on the jurisdiction. In Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, fines range from $100 for a first offense to $500 for repeat offenses, although a warning is given first.

One of the underground reservoirs Florida depends on, the Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer, is 15 feet lower this year than in each of the past four years, according to the South Florida Water Management District. This threatens the supply of wells in Cape Coral, which is just north of Fort Myers and is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Ian last year.

Many wells in the area have been drilled to shallower depths in recent years and may now dry out if the aquifer does not recover, Elsner said.

“Today they are drilling those wells deeper because we have seen the water level drop. So those shallower wells are the most susceptible to drying out,” he said, noting that more than 100 permits for deeper replacement wells have been issued in Cape Coral in recent years.

Farmers have many methods to reduce water use. Practices include slow drip irrigation, deep mulching and watering at night when there is less evaporation, Durica said.

Despite all water conservation efforts, Florida's west coast will need rain to truly alleviate the water shortage.

Forecasters say it's likely that Florida will experience heavier-than-normal rainfall during the generally drier winter months due to a weather phenomenon known as El Nino, which occurs when waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean warm and affect global climate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a 55% chance of a strong El Niño this winter.

“The hope is that with increased rainfall compared to normal this winter and spring, drought conditions will be alleviated,” Molleda said. “The latest drought outlook calls for a likely end to the drought along Florida's Gulf Coast sometime between December and February.”


Associated Press video journalists Cody Jackson in Miami and Laura Bargfeld in Tampa contributed.