Farmers - Not Homeowners - Focus of Swiftmud Freeze Workshop

TAMPA (2010-3-24) -

Homeowners in eastern Hillsborough County are still dealing the effects of January's big freeze - hundreds of dry wells, huge sinkholes - and who's going to pay for it all. A group of experts met today to try to sort it out. But no one talked about how to prevent future damage.

Over 11 straight days in January, farmers pumped huge amounts of water on strawberry and citrus crops to protect them.

The water table dropped by as much as 60 feet in eastern Hillsborough County.

That caused more than 700 wells to dry up, and more than 80 sinkholes to open under roads and homes.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, or SWIFTMUD, held the first of three meetings Wednesday about the freeze.

But almost all the discussion revolved around the farmers - and how to limit the financial impact to them.

The experts talked about setting up a "lottery" to minimize how much any individual farmer would have to pay because of overpumping. They're also looking at a new industry-sponsored fund for such emergencies.

They didn't talk about placing a cap on how much water could be withdrawn during a future freeze.

But members of the public did.

"They're only concerned about the wells, not the sinkholes."

Kenneth Dykes of Dover supports having a mandatory fund paid for by growers. But he also wants it to fix sinkholes caused by the rapid withdrawal of water.

"I was out money that will never be repaired, because I was fortunate - my sinkhole was just out in the yard, and it didn't affect a building," Dykes said. "And so my type of problem that happens now or in the future - a sinkhole that's in the yard - will not be covered by insurance. So I think that's something that needs to be considered using this fund for."

Dykes went without water for six days after his well went dry.

"The farmers should be aware of how many days they should be able to pump, because that's impacting everybody, not just them," he said. "And there should be a certain day - I don't know what it's going to be - four, five, six days - and if it's more than that, you gambled and you lost."

Retired Army Col. Richard Clark also suffered from a burnt-out water pump - and a sinkhole.

"My house was worth, say, a couple of hundred thousand dollars, now it's worth maybe half that because of a sinkhole," said Clark. "And if I have an insurance claim, no one will loan money on my house."

Clark asked Swiftmud executive director Dave Moore if he has any funds to help solve the problem.

Moore replied that will be discussed at next month's meeting in April. The next two meetings will also look at a cap on water withdrawals, complaints about farmers leaving their sprinklers on too long during freezes and possibly alternative methods of reducing water use.

Water district officials say there's no way to trace sinkholes to any particular farmer. They say homeowners should rely on their insurance policy. They've been trying to find other sources of funding, mostly from the state and federal government.

Gov. Crist last week declared a state of emergency for the Dover area, allowing residents to apply for federal aid. That could mean around $20,000 to $25,000 for a home. But Swiftmud's David Rathke said don't count on it.

"It's not looking very likely that may occur, and there is a long period potentially that process may take," said Rathke. "But it is still available."

A homeowner's best chance, he says, would be to apply for federal Small Business Administration disaster loans. The next freeze workshop will be held April 21st in Tampa.

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