MANATEE -- It's official.
The roughly year-long drought that has gripped Southwest Florida is over.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District Board voted Tuesday to let all its water shortage orders expire Wednesday.
The decision most directly affects Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, where residents will now be allowed to water lawns twice a week rather than once, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, SWFMD spokeswoman.
In Manatee County cities and municipalities, most residents will remain watering two days a week, officials said.
Braden River Utilities, water provider for Lakewood Ranch, still has a once-a-week watering schedule for Lakewood Ranch residents. Officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
"It will be up to Braden River Utilities to see if they want to relax that," said Ryan Heise, Lakewood Ranch operations director.
Although Manatee County and its municipalities aren't directly affected by the news, it sends a positive message locally that day after day of rain replenished the Upper Floridan Aquifer, which serves all of Florida, said Mark Simpson, Manatee County Water Division manager.
"We are back to normal," Simpson said. "The stream and river flows are good and at our Lake Manatee Reservoir, we are at the 38-foot elevation, 2 feet below full. I believe we are approaching a record for the amount of rainfall into the Lake Manatee watershed for a June and July."
Rain in June and July combined in Manatee County is 23.16 inches, said Granville Kinsman, manager of the SWFMD Hydrological Data Section. The year-to-date rainfall total is just 27.1 inches.
"To determine if that is a record will take some statistic study," Kinsman said.
Charles Hunsicker, director of Manatee County Natural Resources, cautioned Manatee residents that it's still not OK to use water without thought.
"We endure a feast-or-famine water system in our area and, because of that, there is a tendency to react in a panic or forget about it," Hunsicker said. "What we should keep in the back of our minds is that water is a finite resource so to think the heat is off and we can water prolifically is unsustainable relative to our growing population and limited land and water resources."
Florida averages 55 inches of rain a year, Hunsicker said. But the last 10 years have been below average.
Now comes 2013, the year of rain.
"If the average is 55 inches, we have to have some wet years, too," Hunsicker said. "This is returning to normal. If you plot the rainfall through the years, we are back where we should be."
Kinsman said Tuesday's vote comes after statistics showed great improvement in the region's water profile.
"I see cycles of very dry periods and wet periods," Kinsman said. "I am happy to see this."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.