Residents of Clearwater's Countryside area are upset that the city plans to drill drinking water wells near their homes. They have not been placated by assurances from the city and its experts that the wells will do no harm to the environment and their properties, such as opening sinkholes or draining ponds. Perhaps that is because the "experts" have at times sounded either uninformed or disingenuous.
Consider, for example, the comment by the city's consultant that under Dunedin and Clearwater "there is a consistent clay layer, it's reasonably thick, and we don't have a history" of sinkholes. Is the consultant unaware that in 1990 and 1991, hundreds of Dunedin homes were damaged because of sinkholes?
Or the comment by a city official who said studies by the U.S. Geological Survey linking groundwater pumping to sinkhole development are based on other parts of Florida, where the geology is different. Perhaps that official missed reading the Geological Survey's report titled Sinkholes, West-Central Florida, which focuses on the Tampa Bay region and specifically mentions sinkholes caused by well field pumping in North Pinellas and Pasco under the headline "Ground-water pumping for urban water supply induces new sinkholes."
Residents have a right to expect complete and truthful answers to their questions by informed experts. The city has a duty to provide those answers to its residents — before the well drilling begins, not after.
Yet residents have a responsibility, too — to be open minded and realistic and to avoid overheated rhetoric. Calling the city's plan "a disaster" or accusing city officials of not caring about the environment do not promote what should be a discussion based on science and the region's water needs.
Today Clearwater has 19 deep-water wells and produces about a third of the city's daily water needs. The remainder is purchased from Pinellas County government, which in turn buys it from the region's wholesale water supplier, Tampa Bay Water.
Pinellas County plans to increase water rates, so the city wants to drill 13 new wells to supply more of its own water. The city also wants the new wells so it can rotate the harvesting and avoid pumping too much from any one well.
After significant study and testing, the city found 13 sites where it could reach fresh water — a difficult task, as saltwater has intruded under much of Pinellas County. The sites are mostly city-owned parkland or other open spaces close to existing reservoirs. Seven well sites are scattered around central Clearwater, but six are clustered in an area just north and south of Countryside Mall and extending east to McMullen-Booth Road.
People who live close to that cluster seem most concerned about the city's plan. Some don't want a well near their property because they don't like the appearance of a well head, usually on a fenced concrete pad measuring 16 by 23 feet.
New water sources are needed in the Tampa Bay region. City officials should not determine the location of wells based on residents' concerns about appearance.
But residents also are worried that when the city starts pumping, their own deep or shallow wells used for irrigation will dry up, sinkholes will form, or saltwater will be drawn into the Floridan Aquifer and contaminate it. Those concerns are not specious. The question is, do they warrant relocating some of the wells or not drilling them at all?
Most irrigation wells draw from the sandy surficial aquifer just beneath the soil surface, not from the deep Floridan Aquifer that Clearwater will rely on. As for those residents with deep-water irrigation wells, surely they could agree that drinking water must take priority over water for irrigation.
The city has told residents that saltwater intrusion will not be a problem. The city's water use permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District requires that the city monitor and report back the salt levels so a well can be shut down before it causes harm. Having more wells that can be rotated and not pumped so hard actually helps to prevent saltwater intrusion.
Irresponsible overpumping and several natural causes such as drought or excessive rain can produce sinkholes, which occur when the porous limestone rock under the soil collapses. Studies confirm that Clearwater is not as prone to sinkholes as some other parts of North Pinellas, and Clearwater's pumping plan is conservative. The city's permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District allows it to pump millions of gallons more every day than it does.
However, neither the city nor its experts can truthfully assure residents that they will not experience a sinkhole from pumping, so the city should be motivated to do all it can to reduce that possibility, including searching for an alternative to clustering wells. Dunedin was hit with a class-action lawsuit after the outbreak of sinkholes there.
The recent drought provided one more piece of evidence that the region must develop new drinking water sources. However, they must be located with great care to reduce the probability of serious and irreversible environmental damage.