Hillsborough County threatens legal action against SWFWMD if plan to pump Morris Bridge Sink moves forward

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Hillsborough County Commission
Hillsborough County Commissionioners Victor Crist (left), Les Miller and Stacy White at as the Environmental Protection Commissioners. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (2015).

Hillsborough County Commissioners oppose a plan to pump water from a sinkhole near Thonotosassa as one source to restore flow to the Lower Hillsborough River; meeting as the county’s Environmental Protection Commission Thursday morning, commissioners unanimously voted to ask the region’s water management district for an extension to challenge the permit to pump. And if that fails, the EPC’s general counsel Rick Tschantz says they’re prepared to take legal action to stop the Southwest Florida Water Management District from pumping.

“So what we want to have happen is to not let it go final and not have to file a petition by Christmas Eve. So if they allow an extension we can have some time to talk to them, dig into the terms and technical issues of the permit and then make our decision perhaps in January about whether we should challenge it or whether it can be worked out.”

And by ‘challenge’ do you mean a legal challenge?

“Yes. It’s a petition administrative hearing, it’s not in circuit court. It’s an administrative hearing that would be before a DOA, Division of Administrative Hearings hearing officer.”

And would you go ahead with that if you either don’t hear back from them by the 24th deadline or if they decline the extension?

“Yes. I think the commissioners today indicated that if we don’t hear back from them they were in favor of filing a petition challenging this permit. So if we do not get the extension, we will be filing the challenge.”

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The Hillsborough EPC isn’t the only group threatening legal action against SWFWMD if an extension isn’t granted by next Thursday’s deadline for a challenge to pumping Morris Bridge Sink. John Ovink is an attorney with Friends of the River who brought the 1999 lawsuit to restore fresh water flow to the Lower Hillsborough River in the first place. He says the EPC’s opposition to pumping may be enough. But if not, Friends of the River could sue the water management district.

“If the SWFWMD is not ready to put off this decision, postpone their decision, and sit around the table then we have no choice. … Even though we are a citizen action group we are not a part of government. And sometimes one branch of the government has a lot more pull on another branch than a couple of hundred citizens.”

Ovink was one of five members of the public who encouraged commissioners to stop the plan to pump water from Morris Bridge Sink.

Commissioner Stacy White is concerned that the fragile wetlands could suffer and drinking water wells could be damaged if the sinkhole is pumped.

“My input would be that we act swiftly and be prepared to file this challenge if that’s what it’s going to take.”

Opponents of pumping water from Morris Bridge Sink say the other sources to augment water to the Lower Hillsborough River are enough under most conditions. Commissioner Kevin Beckner pointed out that there are other sources of drinking water than the river.

“I think there’s many other solutions that can be sought out.”

Commissioners voted 6-0 to oppose pumping water from Morris Bridge Sink. Ken Hagan was not at the meeting.

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