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To avoid sinkholes, Swiftmud wants new rules for farmers

This sinkhole in Dover appeared in early January, when the area experienced an extended period of cold weather and farmers used groundwater to protect their crops.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

This sinkhole in Dover appeared in early January, when the area experienced an extended period of cold weather and farmers used groundwater to protect their crops.

PLANT CITY — Edgar Mansila looks next door and prays.

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There's just an empty patch of land there now, an unremarkable gap in a row of little mobile homes. But when Mansila thinks about what happened at the lot last year, when the temperatures dipped and farmers turned on their sprinklers and a sinkhole swallowed his neighbor's home at the Oakbrook Mobile Home Park, there's only one thing to say.

"Jesus," he mutters, "help us."

With temperatures flirting with 30 degrees even before Christmas, Mansila and other east Hillsborough residents fear a repeat of last year's disaster: dozens of sinkholes and hundreds of dry wells caused by a record stretch of freezing nights and groundwater pumping by farmers.

In just over a week during January's cold snap, some 20 sinkholes and depressions in Plant City and Dover closed roads and snarled traffic, and hundreds of private wells were drained.

Still, growers say the likelihood of another catastrophic freeze is slim, considering the favorable La Niña weather pattern and the rarity of such cold snaps in Florida.

But that hasn't stopped the Southwest Florida Water Management District from proposing rule changes that would limit the amount of water farmers could draw from the aquifer in a newly defined "water use caution area around the agricultural areas of Dover and Plant City." The intent is to reduce water pumping during freezes by 20 percent within a decade.

The district, also known as Swiftmud, is scheduled to vote on the amendments Tuesday morning.

Mansila, 44, is glad the issue hasn't been forgotten, for his home's sake.

After his neighbor's trailer was swallowed by a sinkhole in January, Mansila put his up for sale. There were no takers, and now he and his wife are thinking of trying again.

"My daughter said she saw the farmers watering," he said one recent morning. It irks him a little.

Yet he also worries about the growers, who use sprinklers to cover crops with a protective layer of ice when temperatures drop below freezing.

Agriculture has a $1.5 billion economic impact on Hillsborough County each year, with strawberry production alone bringing in more than $300 million, according to the county's office of agriculture industry development.

"I don't know how they're going to do if they don't run the water," Mansila said. "So everybody's in trouble."

Not all the neighbors are as sympathetic.

Danny Cain, who lives a few doors down, said he fully supports water managers' efforts to rein in farmers' water use.

"I don't think anybody should be able to make a profit when it's costing other people," Cain said. "I think they have a right to protect their crops, but there are other processes."

The water management district proposed changes that include a push for frost-protection methods that don't involve pumping water, including insulating ground cover and rainwater retention ponds.

Those alternatives come at an increased cost, though, leaving farmers leery. Nevertheless, they say they understand why it's all happening, and many reluctantly said they would give the alternatives a try.

"It's going to be very, very challenging," said Joe Gude, of Brandon Farms. "But you know, I get it. … I live here, too."

"Farmers are very innovative," said Billy Simmons, of Simmons Farms. "We change with the times."

Officials are trying to make any changes as easy as possible, Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said. Under a program known as Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems, Swiftmud will pay 75 percent of installation costs for some of the new frost protections.

The water district is also paying for new temperature and water-meter monitors in the proposed caution area, in addition to imposing new well-construction standards for home- owners.

Felix said many of the new rules, if approved, won't go into effect until sometime next year.

In the meantime, Edgar Mansila braces himself for the nightly weather report and looks nervously out the window.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

>> If You Go

Attend the meeting

Swiftmud's meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the

district headquarters, 2379 Broad St. in Brooksville. Visit www.swfwmd.state.fl.us for more information.

To avoid sinkholes, Swiftmud wants new rules for farmers 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 10:13pm]
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