SWFWMD funds well repairs

01/26/10 Mark Anderson
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

The Tampa Bay area experienced its longest cold snap on record earlier this month. To protect their crops from the freeze, strawberry growers pumped billions of gallons of water from Florida’s aquifer onto their fruit. The massive water use created a record 60-foot drop in aquifer levels, drying up hundreds of residential wells and creating sinkholes. Today, the Southwest Florida Water Management Board approved spending up to $250,000 of public money to repair the private wells.

The 11-day freeze in January left strawberry growers in eastern Hillsborough County with a big mess: up to 30% of their crops were damaged by the cold. But the growers left the rest of the county with an even bigger mess, a depleted aquifer.

All agree that the long duration of the freeze contributed to the problem. But some believe that the problem was compounded by continued development in the area once dominated by agriculture.

SWFWMD allows the heavy pumping during freeze periods for crop protection, but didn’t foresee the ramifications of a long freeze and urbanization of the area. They are focusing their efforts on getting the 700 affected wells back into production and today approved spending up to $250,000 to finish the job.

But dry wells aren’t the only problem. Sinkholes have appeared all over the area, and blocked 3 lanes of I4 for nearly a week.

The extensive damage done by exhausting the aquifer is still being assessed. Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena asked the board to conduct a thorough analysis of the damage, to guide the revision of pumping rules in the future.

The SWFWMD board is holding 13 growers financially responsible for private well repair, supplemented by the $250,000 appropriated today. But sinkhole repair costs will have to be paid by homeowners and other governmental entities. Despite angry homeowners and frustrated commuters, some Board members seemed mostly concerned about the growers who caused the problems.

The board recognizes that current policies will need to be reconsidered in order to prevent more problems in the future. They are planning to hold a series of 3 Public Work Sessions to help drive the policy changes, and to have the changes made before next winter.

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Sinkholes are continuing to open as late as yesterday. The entire Plant City, Dover and Seffner area are affected. The mere fact that they are continuing to occur demonstrates that the Karst has been severely compromised with or without watering by farmers. Sinkholes can be induced by draw down, erection of buildings/development, vibration from traffic, etc. Before any additional development can occur (i.e. the I-4 corridor) studies should be done by independent parties. To allow intensive development in this area knowing there is a problem is irresponsible and places many at risk.