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30 percent of Florida crops damaged by freeze; 22 sinkholes open after fields sprayed

Despite farmers' best efforts to protect their crops, about 30 percent of Florida's agricultural bounty was damaged by this month's freezing temperatures, state officials say.

"That doesn't mean we lost everything," state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. "We are hoping they can salvage as much as they can."

Meanwhile the farmers' attempts to save their strawberries, citrus and other crops by spraying them with water all night caused such a dramatic drop in the underground aquifer that it resulted in at least 22 sinkholes opening up in Hillsborough County.

Bronson said the farmers "had to do what was available to them" to save the crops — even if it led to damaging homes and roads.

Sinkholes have resulted before when farmers pumped millions of gallons of water out of the ground to spray it on their plants, hoping that the coating of ice that forms would protect the plants from damage.

But in the past, such sinkholes primarily affected the farmers themselves. The crumbling ground fell in and sucked down citrus trees or created instant lakes in the middle of a pasture.

During a 1983 freeze, farmers pumped so much water out of the ground that the aquifer dropped 40 feet in just a couple of days, and about 40 sinkholes opened up, said Mark Stewart, a geology professor at the University of South Florida. But none affected a road or a house.

Now, geologists say, the spread of suburban development into formerly rural areas means more people are affected by what the farmers do.

"As the population has increased," Palm Harbor geologist N.S. "Sandy" Nettles explained, "you are going to have more and more people who are exposed to the sinkhole risk."

The farmers spray water on their crops all night long during freezing conditions to ensure that the plants don't get colder than 32 degrees. Such a drain on the aquifer destabilizes the limestone rock lying under the soil.

A sudden drop of just 10 feet in the water level in the aquifer can destabilize the limestone enough to cause a sinkhole, said Ann Tihansky of the U.S. Geological Survey.

State water managers say they have seen the aquifer drop 60 feet in Dover. USGS monitors in the Dover area registered the lowest levels recorded since they began keeping records in 1958.

"With a drop of 60 feet, you'd definitely expect to see sinkhole activity," Tihansky said.

Ted Campbell, the president of the Florida Strawberry Growers association, said that while he doesn't want to dodge the blame for the sinkholes, others — not just strawberry farmers — have been pulling water from the aquifer.

"We've got more residential demand than we've had before, as well as agriculture," he said. "We all want to co-exist. We understand the strain of natural resources, and we want to be a good steward."

Strawberries picked in Hillsborough County alone are worth more than $300 million, according to Stephen Gran, manager of the county's Agriculture Industry Development program. He estimates the overall economic impact is more than $600 million.

"It's very, very important that we're out there saving this crop," Campbell said.

Try telling that to Betty and Rufus Powell, though.

The Plant City couple were supposed to leave this week for vacation, but their plans changed late Tuesday when their niece noticed a 4-foot dip in their front yard.

Mrs. Powell, 73, knew right away it was a sinkhole. They live near soggy strawberry fields that were heavily watered during the cold snap. They were so worried that the sinkhole will spread to their home while they were out of town that they postponed their trip.

"I'm not going anywhere," Mrs. Powell said. "I don't trust that ground."

Meanwhile more than 300 people have called the Southwest Florida Water Management District to report problems with their private wells, ranging from burned-out pumps to wells that have dried up completely.

For Connie Trubey, 54, a dry well is more than an inconvenience. It has forced her to shut down her home hair salon.

"I can't work," said Trubey, of Dover. Her well has been dry for a week so far.

Her well has dried up each winter for the past three years, always after freezes, when nearby strawberry farmers pump water over their plants to protect them.

"I know it's their livelihood, but this is my livelihood, too," she said.

Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said after the freeze conditions are over, the agency will review how it handled the crisis and there may be changes. After a freeze in 2002, she said, the agency began requiring new agricultural wells in the Dover area to be 600 to 800 feet deep, far deeper than residential wells. But older wells were grandfathered in.

Times staff writers John Frank, Kim Wilmath, Emily Nipps and staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

30 percent of Florida crops damaged by freeze; 22 sinkholes open after fields sprayed 01/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 2:27pm]
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