This month's freeze underscores why Florida needs to better balance the interests of farmers and their suburban neighbors. Farmers struggling to save their crops in the freezing conditions pumped so much water from the aquifer that dozens of sinkholes opened up in eastern Hills- borough County, drying up residential water wells, threatening homes and roads and shutting down traffic and small businesses. Agriculture plays a major role in Florida's economy, and farmers need some latitude to deal with severe weather. But the health, order and livelihood of suburban communities also must be a concern.
The extreme weather was unusual in both its low temperatures and duration. Gov. Charlie Crist has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare all of the state's 67 counties a disaster area, which would give growers access to federal aid. His request came after a preliminary finding by state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson that about 30 percent of Florida's crop had been damaged by sustained hours of subfreezing weather over a 13-day period. The full extent of the damage should be clear in the coming week. But Bronson said no sector of the state's agriculture industry was spared, from strawberries and citrus to corn and tropical fish.
In eastern Hillsborough, where strawberries are a $300 million annual crop, farmers pumped millions of gallons of water from the aquifer to spray on their plants; the coating of ice forms a protective layer on the fruit. The pumping caused the aquifer to drop 60 feet in Dover (a sudden drop of just 10 feet in the water level can destabilize the limestone enough to cause a sinkhole), resulting in at least 22 sinkholes in the eastern part of the county. Depressions and cracks in the highways caused a partial closing of Interstate 4 and U.S. 92 near Plant City, along with parts of 15 other roads. The county also distributed bottled water to homeowners whose wells had gone dry. Some 600 people have called regional water managers to report their wells had malfunctioned or dried up completely. The freeze clearly impacted more than farmers.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District plans to establish a work group at its Jan. 26 board meeting to study what happened and to explore how to lessen the impact on the aquifer during any similar freeze. Swiftmud should take that job seriously. The panel also should include a cross-section of those who have a stake in the outcome: the agriculture industry, water managers, environmentalists and area property owners.
Growers are already looking at alternatives to watering crops for freeze protection. Fabric crop covers and chemical foams are still in the test stages and raise practical problems of their own. There are also hundreds of old, shallow wells throughout the 110-square-mile area in eastern Hillsborough that were allowed to remain after the state imposed new well depth requirements in 2002.
Everything should be on the table. This month's freeze may have been a freak of nature. But the state needs a plan for protecting agriculture that does not put the homes or livelihoods of suburban residents at risk.