Freeze Water Cap Could be in the Future for Farmers

Sinkhole sign
Sign in January in Dover
TAMPA (2010-4-21) -

More than 800 area homes suffered from dry water wells or sinkholes because of overpumping during January's freeze. Today, for the first time, the water district proposed a limit on how much water farmers could pump.

Homeowners who went without water for days - or even weeks - during the 11-day freeze may not have to worry anymore. That's if the Southwest Florida Water Management District - or Swiftmud - listens to some of the ideas being floated for the first time by an advisory panel.

"We think it's important to look forward and say we don't want this problem to get worse, and in fact we want to lower the risks for these kinds of impacts in future freeze events."

Richard Owen, the district's second-in-command, says there could be a cap on how much water farmers can pump to protect their crops when the weather gets below freezing. And it could limit new water permits given out in the strawberry growing areas around Plant City.

"We've taken our best shot at trying to come up with some options here for our consideration," Owen said.

That didn't sit too well with some agricultural representatives who make up half of the advisory board. Larry Black is with Florida Citrus Mutual, the Lakeland-based citrus trade group.

"I don't want to set a cap," says Black, "or contemplate setting a cap, and as this area urbanizes, and area land use changes happen, that our agricultural industry goes away because we set a cap."

Owen says farmers and growers will be given every opportunity to help fashion any new rules.

"We're not looking for the ability - during the middle of a freeze event - to tell a farmer, "stop protecting your crop." That's not what we want to do. We want to avoid that at all costs," says Owen.

"Best news I've heard today," was the response.

The goal is to keep the aquifer from dipping below 10 feet above sea level, which seems to be the threshold for causing dry wells and sinkholes. Swiftmud officials say if farmers had withdrawn 20 percent less water during January's freeze, the current mess may have been avoided.

One way to do this is require farmers to have something akin to retention ponds on their property that can be tapped in emergencies. These ponds could be replenished by water seeping underground after it's been sprayed on crops.

Previously, the district had only looked at damage to area wells, and how to lessen the financial impact to farmers who have to pay for them.

Relatively little has been said about the other effect of the overpumping. At least 140 sinkholes opened up in the Dover and Plant City area, eating up roads and homes alike.

State officials have gotten pledges of nearly $1 million from the federal government to help reimburse the cost of fixing sinkholes in roads.

But Swiftmud executive director Dave Moore says when it comes to homes threatened by sinkholes, it's up to the homeowners to fix the problem

"Much of the discussion today was making sure we take measures to minimize the risk of impacts moving forward - both sinkholes as well as well complaints," says Moore. "We're hoping that the insurance companies step forward and address those issues related to this issue."

The next workshop in May will look at how to step up communication between the Swiftmud, the farmers and local governments during a future freeze.

These workshops are expected to continue into summer, when board members will decide whether to cap future pumping during the next big freeze.

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