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Florida Science Center


Circular 1295

Prepared in cooperation with
Florida Department of Transportation
Florida Department of Environmental Protection


The Drought of 1998-2002: Impacts on Florida’s Hydrology and Landscape

Richard J. Verdi, Stewart A. Tomlinson, and Richard L. Marella


Select an option:

      Purpose and Scope
      Description of Area
      Definition of Drought
Climate and Precipitation
      1998 Water Year
      1999 Water Year
      2000 Water Year
      2001 Water Year
      2002 Water Year
      2003 Water Year
      2004 Water Year
Impacts of the Drought on Hydrologic Conditions
Ground-Water Elevations
      The Hydrologic Cycle
Impacts of the Drought on Water Use in Florida
Impacts of the Drought on Florida’s Landscape
      Sinkholes and Lake Jackson
Historical Perspective on Florida’s Droughts
      1931-1935 Drought
      1949-1957 Drought
      1970-1977 Drought
      1980-1982 Drought


Drought, commonly defined as being a time of less-than-normal or expected rainfall; depending on the effect and cause, may be characterized as agricultural, hydrological, meteorological, or sociological:

•  Agricultural—A shortage of water in the root zone of plants such that plant yield is reduced considerably.

•  Hydrological—An extended period during which streamflow, lake and reservoir storage, and ground-water levels are below normal.

•  Meteorological—An extended period during which precipitation is below normal.

•  Sociological—Meteorologic and hydrologic conditions under which less water is available than is anticipated and relied on for the normal level of social and economic activity of a region.

    Lower than normal precipitation1 caused a severe statewide drought in Florida from 1998 to 2002. Based on precipitation and streamflow records dating to the early 1900s, the drought was one of the worst ever to affect the State. In terms of severity, this drought was comparable to the drought of 1949-1957 in duration and had record-setting low flows in several basins. The drought was particularly severe over the 5-year period in the northwest, northeast, and southwest regions of Florida (fig. 1), where rainfall deficits ranged from 9-10 in. below normal (southwest Florida) to 38-40 in. below normal (northwest Florida). Within these regions, the drought caused record-low streamflows in several river basins, increased freshwater withdrawals, and created hazardous conditions ripe for wildfires, sinkhole development, and even the draining of lakes. South Florida was affected primarily in 2001, when the region experienced below-average streamflow conditions; however, cumulative rainfall in south Florida never fell below the 30-year normal. The four regions of Florida (fig. 1), as referred to throughout this report, are defined based upon U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data collection regions in Florida.

    Record-low flows were reported at several streamflow-gaging stations throughout the State, including the Withlacoochee River at Trilby, which reached zero flow on June 10-11, 2000, for the first time during the period of record (1928-2004). Streamflow conditions varied across the State from 31 percent of average flow in 2000 in southwest Florida, to 100 percent of average in 1999 in south Florida. Low-flow recurrence intervals during the drought ranged from less than 2 years at three locations to greater than 50 years at many locations.

    During the 1998-2002 drought, ground-water levels at many wells across the State declined to elevations not seen in many years. At some wells, ground-water levels reached record lows for their period of record. Florida Water Management Districts responded by issuing water-shortage mandates to curb water use during the spring months of 2000. Generally, freshwater withdrawals increased 13 percent between 1995 and 2000 as a result of the dry conditions.

    Hundreds of new sinkholes developed across the State. Lake Jackson, in northwest Florida near Tallahassee, experienced its eighth and ninth drawdowns of the past 100 years, and became nearly dry. Numerous other lakes in northern and central Florida experienced similar events. Water restrictions were put into effect in urban areas of the northeast, southwest, and south Florida regions. Wildfires periodically raged over parts of Florida throughout the period, when tinder-dry undergrowth caught fire from lightning strikes or manmade causes. Smoke from these fires caused traffic delays as sections of major highways and interstate lanes forced traffic to slow to a crawl or were closed. Wildfire statistics (Florida Division of Forestry, undated(a)) show that 25,137 fires burned 1.5 million acres between 1998 and 2002. Finally, rainfall that occurred in late 2002, in 2003, and from a tropical storm and four hurricanes in 2004 ended this drought.

Suggested Citation:

Verdi, R.J., Tomlinson, S.A., and Marella, R.L., 2006, The Drought of 1998-2002: Impacts on Florida’s Hydrology and Landscape: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1295, 34 p.

For additional information, contact:

U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
2010 Levy Avenue
Tallahassee, FL 32310

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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