Swiftmud debate freeze pumping cap

04/27/10 Kate Bradshaw
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In January, more than a week of record low temperatures caused farmers to pump groundwater to keep frost from killing their crops. Sinkholes ensued. Today, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) tossed around the idea of capping the amount of water area farmers can draw from the aquifer that lies below much of Florida. Richard Owen, the district’s Deputy Executive Director, told SWFWMD's Board that this winter made for a perfect storm.

“We had an unprecedented climatic event occur in terms of the duration of that freeze event. We had an unprecedented amount of pumpage of groundwater occur in terms of growers in the area trying to protect their commodities. In response to that we had an unprecedented amount of complaints reported to us. Approx 750 well complaints were reported to our staff, at least 150 sinkholes…”

Farmlands near Plant City as well as Dover were of key concern. Owen said that while farmers are drawing much more water to protect their strawberry, tomato, and squash harvests, the phenomenon isn’t new.

“It’s not a recent phenomenon. It’s not just recently-issued water use permits in the area that are causing the problem. All the users in the area are drawing…”

Board member Jennifer Closshey noted that sinkholes occur year-round, so it may be hard to tell when one is caused by a farmer over-pumping to fend off frost. The same goes for dry wells, another result of overpumping.

“It could be said that a portion of the sinkholes that are occurring even within the proposed cap area might have occurred even if they hadn’t pumped.”

Ken Weber, the district’s Water Use Permitting Director said that the problem is the district is short on data for the area. But he did say, perhaps to the chagrin of SWFWMD board members connected to agriculture, that enforcing a limit on the water farmers can take to prevent crop freeze, could keep the aquifer at ten feet above sea level. That’s the amount believed to prevent sinkholes in the area.

“So it appears that a 20 percent reduction overall would get us to the point where water levels would not be drawn to under ten feet.”

Detractors said that groundwater is the cheapest way to prevent crops from freezing, and board member Judy Whitehead asked how the district expects to enforce the cap.

“It’s kind of like my option is to not exceed the speed limit, too, but if I’m in a hurry and I guess maybe if I do and I take that risk, you know, that I might get a speeding ticket and I have to pay the differences, it might be worth it in some cases. I guess that’s my concern.”

Robyn Felix, a district spokesperson said that water levels recovered in Dover and Plant City by the end of January, though some residential well users were without water practically the whole time. The board did not adopt a cap today, and will hold a series of workshops throughout the district area to determine its best course.

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