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Oldsmar homeowner worries well project will increase sinkholes

OLDSMAR — When city officials discuss a $20 million water treatment plant scheduled to open next year, they trumpet the positive: it will reduce demand on the region's already stretched water supply, it will limit increases in residents' monthly bills, it will help the city become water independent.

Jeffrey Hackett doesn't begrudge Oldsmar's attempt to become self-sufficient. He just doesn't want the city to do it at his expense.

"A large pumping project like this could cause sinkholes to form, especially in the Forest Lakes Boulevard area that's mixed with residential and commercial and a school," he said.

Hackett lives in unincorporated Pinellas County, but he has an Oldsmar address. His East Lake Woodlands Parkway home is near 12 wells that will be used to pump drinking water from underground.

Despite an extensive permitting process, years of research that conclude environmental impacts will be negligible and a monitoring plan intended to safeguard Oldsmar from sinkholes, Hackett is worried that the project puts him and other homeowners at risk.

And he's not alone. The head of the Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve is also concerned. A city-issued map detailing well locations and drawdown potential shows a spot within the preserve with drawdown potential of 0.2 feet.

"In Florida, (that) means the difference between one type of habitat and another," said Barbara Hoffman, the group's chairwoman. "I don't want to come across as negative on this project. If they think there's going to be negligible impact, we have to go by what they say. However, we (will be) looking into it as well to be doubly sure."

Hackett's fears, which have been heightened by the recent spate of sinkholes in Hillsborough, are rooted in history.

Shortly after Dunedin started pumping its own water in the early 1990s, homes started sagging, cracking and settling. All told, 160 homes were damaged.

Insurance companies canceled policies. Property values plummeted. A task force formed. Homeowners filed suit against the city. The protracted legal battle took nearly four years to settle.

John Mulvihill said that what happened in Dunedin will not happen in Oldsmar.

"Dunedin has some issues that Oldsmar does not," said Mulvihill, Oldsmar's director of public works. "Dunedin pumps out of different aquifers than the city of Oldsmar is projecting to do. They also have different geological ground materials than in Oldsmar."

So does Hillsborough, where 22 sinkholes formed during January's cold spell.

"They were pumping out of irrigation wells," Mulvihill said. "When you pump out of those and the water is gone, it's gone. And what you've got is a void. That's what creates a sinkhole, pumping out of shallow wells, pumping out of the surficial aquifer."

Oldsmar will be drawing out of two brackish water aquifers, the Tampa Limestone and the Upper Suwannee. Unlike surficial aquifers, they are lower in elevation and are recharged from underground flowing streams, not by surface water or rainwater.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District would not have issued water use permits for the project if the threat of sinkholes, wetlands loss and other environmental hazards were real, Mulvihill said.

"They're not going to let us do anything that impacts the environment," he said. "We don't anticipate any impact at all, but if we do there are safeguards in place."

According to its water use permit, a licensed consultant hired by Oldsmar must monitor 13 locations near the wells, which stretch along Forest Lakes Boulevard from Lakeview Drive to Brooker Creek Boulevard.

Some of the monitoring sites are in Brooker Creek Preserve. Some are north and south of Forest Lakes Boulevard. Two are in Hillsborough County. Lockheed Martin and Eastlake Oaks each have one site.

"We have to monitor those on an ongoing basis and report to Swiftmud any impacts caused by pumping," Mulvihill said.

To accurately detect any changes, Oldsmar has spent the past two years collecting data on existing conditions at the well site locations, during rainy and dry seasons.

"Once we start pumping the wells and we do our actual monitoring, you've got something to compare it to," Mulvihill said. "So Swiftmud can say, 'This is what it was before you started pumping, this is what it was after you started pumping.' "

If the consultant detects any significant differences, Oldsmar will cutback on pumping and readjust, he said. Should the city become liable for any environmental damage, Mulvihill said, it would be covered through insurance it has through the Florida League of Cities.

The city estimates the plant will be ready by late September 2011.

Once complete, the water treatment plant will use reverse osmosis technology to turn brackish water into drinkable water and have the ability to produce up to 2 million gallons of water a day.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Oldsmar homeowner worries well project will increase sinkholes 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 3:43pm]
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