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Sinkhole closes Plant City elementary school even as aquifer levels rise

PLANT CITY — A large sinkhole closed a Plant City elementary school Tuesday and smaller depressions closed two exits along Interstate 4, even as regional water management officials said underground water levels have rebounded.

The sinkhole beneath Trapnell Elementary School was discovered over the weekend near the administrative building and media center, school officials said.

It was the most dramatic example yet of the impact of massive pumping of underground water by farmers in the Plant City area trying to protect their crops from a record-breaking stretch of cold weather.

Officials have counted about 20 sinkholes and depressions in the past week that have closed roads, snarled traffic, drained hundreds of private wells and swallowed a mobile home.

In some cases, the holes are barely visible.

At Trapnell, no school buildings were damaged, and the only noticeable difference was a tilting canopy.

"There's nothing to see, there's no hole," said Hillsborough school spokesman Stephen Hegarty. "A canopy is listing a little bit."

It was that tilting canopy — and a slight depression in the sidewalk near a grassy area between the school's main building, cafeteria and media center — that prompted officials to test for sinkholes.

Classes were not in session Monday and Tuesday, so principal Rhonda Pulling notified parents and staff by an automated telephone call.

Starting Wednesday, Trapnell's 570 students will be divided between the new Strawberry Crest High School and Bailey Elementary School. It's unclear when it will be safe for Trapnell students to return to their school.

The Plant City area has been plagued by sinkholes in the past week because of a dramatic drop in the water level of the Floridan aquifer. The Southwest Florida Water Management District blamed the drop on agricultural pumping during the recent freeze.

At its lowest point, the aquifer was 60 feet blow normal. By Tuesday, it was 13 feet below where it was before the freeze, said Tony Gilboy, a geologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.

Two more depressions were discovered this week on eastbound interstate exit ramps — one at Branch Forbes Road on Monday night and another at southbound Alexander Road early Tuesday. Those shut down both ramps while crews worked to repair them, said the Florida Highway Patrol.

State road officials said none of the depressions that have plagued I-4 are sinkholes.

The difference between a sinkhole and a depression is one of geology, though it makes little difference to those stuck in traffic or dealing with drained wells.

A sinkhole is a depression accompanied by limestone erosion, Gilboy said. It's possible all the depressions and sinkholes are the result of the agricultural pumping, he said. Saying that for sure requires further testing, he said.

Gilboy said Swiftmud fielded calls from about 600 people reporting malfunctioning or dried up wells and 38 calls from people reporting suspected depressions or sinkholes in their yards. Those dips have ranged from just a few inches to more than 10 feet.

"I can't remember when we've had that many in such a short period of time," Gilboy said.

As for the Trapnell students, those in grades 3,4 and 5 will attend classes this week at the high school, which has plenty of unused capacity, Hegarty said. The remainder of students will attend Bailey.

Parents can drop off students Wednesday at either Bailey or Strawberry Crest, depending on their grade level, or their school bus will pick them up as usual.

Work to determine the extent of the sinkhole and possibly fill it with will begin later this week, officials said.

After that, with the water leveling out and weather warming up, can we put our sinkhole fears to rest?

"I don't know," Gilboy said. "I don't known if anyone can say yes or no definitively."

Sinkhole closes Plant City elementary school even as aquifer levels rise 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 11:28pm]
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