When Dominick Cipollone went out to his back yard in Altamonte Springs, Fla., Thursday to water his garden, he found that part of it -- including tomatoes, grape vines, a pear tree, a 50-foot oak, and a chain-link fence -- had silently vanished. Where his garden stood there is now a hole 50 feet wide and 40 feet deep.
Cipollone was forced to move out of his home -- complaining as he went of his lost tomatoes -- because of the danger that the sinkhole in his yard would devour the house as well.
Sinkholes in Florida are the most dramatic result of a drought that is affecting parts of 42 states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The eight states not affected are Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oregon, and Alaska.
Despite spring rains, half the 166 key index stations around the nation are reporting near-record lows in streams and underground water levels for April. In the plains states, wells and reservoirs began to run dry and crop and cattle losses were predicted.
Heavy rains are predicted for most of the country during the next 30 days, however. A spokesman for the National Weather Service expressed hope that the rains will return conditions to near normal, although pockets of drought may persist.
More than 4 million residents of southern Florida, including those in the city of Miami, have been ordered to cut their water use by 25 percent, only a week after a voluntary cutback of 10 percent failed to stem the loss of ground water.
It is the second-worst drought in 60 years in the area and may soon be the worst. If there is no rain in the next few days, a 50 percent cutback in water use may be necessary, cutting off all water use except for necessities, according to a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.
So far, the drought has created at least eight sinkholes ranging in size from 50 to 300 feet across and from 10 to 100 feet deep. The largest, at Winter Park in central Florida, pulled a house and several automobiles into its 300-foot maw last weekend. Damage from the collapse is estimated at $2 million. The other seven pits are in the same region, and at least of two are slowly getting larger, though none approaches the size of the one at Winter Park.
Sinkholes appear during droughts because underground water has dissolved the limestone rock supporting the earth, creating water-filled caverns. As long as the water level remains high, it supports the earth, but when the water table drops, the earth collapses into the underground cavities.
Last Thursday Miami Beach's Fountainbleau Hotel turned off its fountains and lawn sprinklers, and fruit growers cut off their daytime irrigation when Jack Maloy, director of the South Florida Water Management District, ordered the cutback.
"We are asking people to cut back to 150 gallons a day," Maloy said. "That's not hurting your life style yet, but it means cutting back on all nonessential uses. You don't run the water when you brush your teeth, you don't run the washer unless you have a full load." Other cutbacks ordered by local jurisdictions include halting all washing of pavement and buildings, all car-washing, and all lawn-watering except at designated times.
In Florida, the greatest danger from drought is the gradual rise of salt water in the ground, as the fresh water on top is depleted, Maloy said. The area depends on shallow wells for most of its water, and once salt water has contaminated the wells they are destroyed, he said. The area is still some weeks away from such an emergency.
In the Everglades, great patches of swamp have dried up, and alligators have dug holes in the mud to protect themselves from heat and from fires, which swept across the swamp in at least four places last week.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham yesterday authorized a 30-day call-up of the National Guard to fight the fires, which have burned an estimated 105,000 acres of the Everglades. He said 9,371 fires this year have burned 384,781 acres of state woodlands, at a potential timber loss of $532 million.
One fire burned 72,000 acres of the 570,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve in central Florida before it was put out late Friday.
In southern Kansas, 41 small towns have severe water shortages, according to Dwight Metzler, chief of water supply development for the state. Eleven towns have run completely dry and are importing water by truck and pipe, he said.
The state plans to lay emergency pipelines from rivers and reservoirs to the driest communities -- up to distances of 20 or 30 miles -- if rains do not raise water levels in a few weeks.
The drought resulted largely from the lack of snow and rainfall last fall and winter, which prevented the normal buildup of snow and ground water levels that provide the reserve for summer and fall. Now, even with the spring thaw and rain, the five largest rivers in the country are running about 40 percent below normal.
Losses are expected in spring wheat crops in several plains states, and in cattle from some areas of the northern border states, where animals are now grazing on half the usual amount of grass, according to the Soil Conservation Service.
The Army Crops of Engineers plans to shut down river traffic on the Missouri for one month of the normal seven-month season because of low water levels behind the dams that feed the river.
The levels of streams and groundwater were below normal in Maryland and Virginia, but storage reservoirs are only slightly below normal and no water restrictions are anticipated soon in the area, according to U.S. Geological Survey spokesman Donovan Kelly.
Heavy rains in the Delaware River basin -- which includes New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- have not yet brought streams and reservoirs up to normal levels, and water conservation measures remain in effect.
The National Weather Service is predicting heavier than normal rains for the next 30 days across the country. "But you don't end droughts with one storm or one month of storms," said Roland Loffredo, chief of hydrology for the weather service.
"You will only maintain the status quo with rain, because during the summer the water balance shifts to the negative. We lose more water than we can gain in the summer."