PLANT CITY — In a continued response to January's record freeze and subsequent agricultural groundwater pumping, officials are urging farmers to use alternate water sources, including irrigation-runoff ponds, rather than drawing solely from the aquifer.
Officials plan to present the suggestions Wednesday at what could be the final community meeting about the freeze's implications, said Robyn Felix, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.
The freeze highlighted the need to reduce local groundwater use, Felix said, but water levels had been dropping long before January. In farmland areas of Plant City and Dover, water levels have dropped 10 feet in as many years.
Swiftmud wants to reduce groundwater usage by 20 percent in the next decade, Felix said, freezes or not. But should such an unusual cold snap happen again, Swiftmud plans to be ready.
During those 11 freezing nights in January, farmers pumped about a billion gallons of groundwater each day to cover crops with a protective layer of ice, which sapped hundreds of residential wells and opened dozens of sinkholes that swallowed highways, front yards and mobile homes.
"It's such a concentrated, small area that when we had the January freeze it had a major impact," Felix said.
New caps on agricultural pumping could be in order, Felix said, and officials will discuss that possibility at Tuesday's meeting.
But perhaps the biggest Swiftmud effort will be encouraging farmers to use alternative water sources — notably tailwater recovery ponds that recycle irrigation runoff.
A few local farmers already have the ponds, but most don't. The ponds take up acreage that could be used to plant crops. And there's the extra expense.
Depending on a farm's size, the average pond costs $235,000, about half of which Swiftmud reimburses, said Bill Orendorff, who manages that reimbursement. He said most ponds take up about 21/2 acres.
It may seem costly, but Orendorff said the effort is worth it to ensure acceptable water levels.
Carl Grooms, a strawberry grower from Fancy Farms in Plant City, isn't so sure.
"If there was a good alternative means (for using water), we'd have done it by now," Grooms said.
"We don't like to change unless we know the change is for the better."
Grooms doesn't like the idea of carving off acreage that can't be used for crops. Plus, some of the lowest parts of his land, where runoff would be best collected, is protected as wetlands, he said.
Other Swiftmud freeze-protection proposals don't seem much better, Grooms said, citing an idea to cover plants with cloth rather than ice. It'd be nearly impossible for Grooms to round up the manpower to cover his 210 acres for one freezing night.
Then there's the central issue itself: that farmers should change to fix a problem that Grooms said isn't only their responsibility.
"Everybody's got their straws in the ground," he said. "We all contribute to sucking out that water."
He's fairly certain that an 11-day freeze isn't going to happen again any time soon — or maybe ever.
Plus, he said, residents who live around farms should know what to expect, including the potential for dry wells and sinkholes.
"If you move next to an airport and you don't like the noise of those planes going by, are you going to go over there and tell them to move that airport?" Grooms said.
Another Swiftmud proposal would require residential wells to be dug deeper than usual to reduce the possibility of drying out. But there are no plans to limit residential usage, Felix said.
"We've got to make some changes," Felix said, "but we want to work with the agricultural community to find solutions that are not going to negatively impact their business while protecting the community."
Reach Kim Wilmath at (813) 661-2442 or email@example.com.