PLANT CITY — Drivers face at least nine detours today after Hillsborough County public works closed roads near newly formed sinkholes — including one suspected on Interstate 4 that has shut down two eastbound lanes.
Traffic was backed up for miles Tuesday while highway engineers examined the depression. One lane was open near Plant City, and that will be the situation today, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Late Tuesday, Transportation Department officials still were not certain that a sinkhole was causing the problem. More than a week of cold weather is suspected of being the source of a rash of sinkholes and dry wells in eastern Hillsborough.
Robyn Felix, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, blamed low water levels in the aquifer as a result of agricultural pumping.
For more than a week, farmers across the bay area have been sprinkling plants with water overnight to cover them with a protective layer of ice.
The department said Tuesday afternoon that a small depression on eastbound Interstate 4 just east of the exit for Branch Forbes Road could be a sinkhole.
Workers blocked the middle and left lanes of eastbound I-4 into the night.
The lanes were closed after a state trooper responded to calls of a dip in the roadway. The pavement was flexing as cars and trucks went over the dip, said Highway Patrol Lt. Allan Carter.
Transportation engineers worked into the night to determine if they were dealing with a sinkhole. Emergency maintenance repairs were planned if that was the case.
Hundreds of people in the Plant City area also reported to Swiftmud that their personal wells had gone dry Tuesday.
Felix said that water levels will replenish naturally eventually, but said the agency can offer some help to residents whose homes predate any of the farms in their area. "If their home predates any of the farms in their area, we can require the farmer to provide water or pay for damages if there have been damages to their wells. And if they have to buy water in the meantime, they can be reimbursed," Felix said.
But if a home was built after area farms were in operation, Swiftmud can't provide any assistance. For those who are unsure, they can call Swiftmud's Tampa office to find out if they are eligible for assistance.
Felix said resources have been shifted to investigate these cases and take action for homeowners.
On county roads, nine sinkholes opened in two days in the Plant City area, officials said.
One hole, at Chitty Road and W Sam Allen Road west of Plant City, was discovered at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.
The depression wasn't threatening homes, but deputies notified neighbors of the 10- by 20-feet opening that was 6 inches deep.
The road nearby was crumbling, deputies said.
Another sinkhole closed the north and southbound lanes of Dover Road near Sydney Road in Dover Tuesday.
Even with the road closures and dry wells, local farmers haven't broken any water pumping rules, Felix said. The district sets limits on how much water farmers can use. Many farmers have permits to use hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each day. Their water usage limits are averaged over the year so a week of heavy use doesn't necessarily break district rules, Felix said.
The water they're pumping usually comes from the upper Floridan Aquifer, which extends into Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. However, most of the water drawn from the aquifer is taken out in Central Florida, primarily for agriculture and phosphate mining, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Felix suggested people near trouble spots check their homes' foundations for cracks and listen closely for cracking noises.