TAMPA — The next time eastern Hillsborough County is hit with a severe freeze, farmers will be urged to limit the water they pump out of the aquifer.
It's part of a new plan to reduce groundwater usage and the risk of sinkholes.
But while a proposed pumping cap could leave new farmers with no choice but to cut back, officials say the plan's success will largely depend on existing farmers cooperating with alternative crop-protecting methods.
A record-breaking 11 nights of freezing temperatures in January created concerns about water pumping after 140 sinkholes opened up and 750 wells were sapped dry in the Dover and Plant City areas, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Farmers pumped a billion gallons each day to cover their crops with a protective layer of ice.
In the last of four meetings with industry experts Wednesday, the agency known as Swiftmud reviewed a plan that aims to reduce groundwater usage in those agricultural areas by 10 percent in five years and 20 percent in 10 years.
Existing farmers can keep pumping the amounts their permits allow, but executive director David Moore said Swiftmud will now strongly encourage crop-protection alternatives, most notably tailwater recovery ponds on farmers' properties that collect irrigation runoff.
Some local farmers already use the ponds, for which Swiftmud reimburses about half of the costs. Moore said he plans to ask Swiftmud's governing board to increase that amount to 75 percent.
Whether more farmers will get on board is unclear.
"We do understand that everybody contributes to this, but it just seems like all the burden's being put on us. Not just the berry industry, but agriculture as a whole," said strawberry grower Carl Grooms of Fancy Farms in Plant City.
If all of the stored pond water is gone after one night of freezing, farmers will be back to pulling water from the ground, Grooms said. Plus, the ponds would take up acreage that could be used for crops.
Moore said the ponds clearly won't be able to provide all of a farmer's water during a freeze, but they would help.
"If we could get 30 or 40 or 50 percent (of farms) on tailwater recovery ponds, we should get well over that 20 percent plan for the next 10 years," Moore said.
Grooms thinks Swiftmud may be overreacting. In his nearly 40 years as a farmer, he's never seen a freeze as brutal as January's.
"We're hollering wolf here,'' he said. "I think it's too harsh, really."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813)661-2442 or [email protected]