Sinkholes from Overpumping Gobbling Homes

Sinkhole ahead
A common warning sign in eastern Hillsborough County
PLANT CITY (2010-2-17) -

There is one piece of advice the Southwest Florida Water Management District has for people whose homes are being swallowed by sinkholes: You're on your own.

"From our perspective, it's the private property owner who's responsible to respond to those, working with their property insurance."

Richard Owen, Swiftmud's deputy executive director, was then greeted with a chorus of shaking heads.

Many of the roughly 300 people who showed up at Hillsborough Community College in Plant City were directly affected by the freeze. Some had their wells run dry because area farmers pumped huge amounts of water to protect their crops. Although the farmers declared at fault have to pay for new wells or pumps, many have yet to see a dime.

But their concerns pale in comparison to people lost their homes because of sinkholes, which formed after the sudden drop in the water table.

Eighty-five sinkholes have been reported in eastern Hillsborough County - many under roadways. The local governments are stuck with that tab - including a $2 million price tag for Plant City.

The rest have appeared on private property - and Swiftmud says it's up to the owner to fix the problem. That didn't sit well with Laura Lisenbee, who came home recently to find part of it was gone.

"I've called the county - nobody has even come out and looked at it," she said. "I've called Swiftmud, nobody. I have got not response from no one, and me, my husband and four children are living with our sister because our house is not liveable."

Lisenbee then spoke directly to Swiftmud executive director Dave Moore.

"I have no home," she said. "Where do we go? What do we do?

"Well, again, we encourage you to speak to the company with which you have your homeowner's insurance," replied Moore.

Lisenbee's response: " I don't have any homeowner's insurance! We're in a recession. We own our own business. I have four children. If I don't pay my homeowner's, nobody's going to say anything. If I don't feed my kids, they're going to put me in jail!

"So what do I do? I have no house. I have four kids that are misplaced. And nobody is willing to do anything.

"Ma'am, we have some staff at the back of the room," said Moore. "If you could get their names, maybe the can give you some help."

Swiftmud isn't talking about paying for sinkhole damage. But growers may be asked to create a new fund to fix well problems. Another possible solution: require deeper wells.

Retired Army Col. Richard Clark of Dover has a dry well - and a sinkhole - on his property. He says the solution isn't requiring homeowners to dig deeper wells.

"We have to limit water usage," he said. "Everything else in here, the telephone calls, the charts, is wonderful. But water usage is the problem."

Several other speakers at the forum talked about limiting the amount farmers can pump. Swiftmud officials said they'd consider it.

Those officials used the word "unprecedented" at least seven times when talking about the cold snap, with 11 straight days of near-freezing temperatures. And they say no one expected the huge drops in the aquifer.

Swiftmud has appointed a 16-member panel to address their concerns. They will help Swiftmud's staff to make recommendations to the district's governing board so action can be taken before next winter.

Nearly half the members are associated with the strawberry or citrus industries. The committee includes one environmentalist, three ordinary citizens and four representatives from local governments. Moore says they'll consider all options.

"What I heard loud and clear tonight - we need to put an emphasis on - what do we need to do about sinkholes moving forward?" he said. "I do know that if we were to look at how much water is allocated per use, that should potentially minimize risk for sinkhole development as we move forward in time. All these things will be on the table."

Two more community forums are planned - but no dates have been set.

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