Over the past year, more than two dozen citrus growers, including some in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, have repeatedly pumped thousands of gallons more water out of the aquifer than their state permits allow. One Brandon-based grower supposedly limited to 200,000 gallons a day pumped out 1.6 million gallons in one day.
But the Southwest Florida Water Management District has taken no steps to punish any of the owners of the 28 groves.
The reason: The growers contend that pumping all that extra water has been necessary to fight a disease that has been sweeping the state's orange groves, a plague called citrus greening.
"It's a little hard to penalize somebody for doing what they think is right," said Robert Beltran, executive director of the agency commonly known as Swiftmud. "The farmers are out there doing what they can to protect their investment."
When asked why the growers need so many thousands of gallons of water to fight greening, Beltran said he was unsure, explaining, "I'm no expert."
Citrus scientists contacted by the Times said they'd never heard of combating greening with lots of water. Meanwhile, officials with the South Florida Water Management District and the St. Johns River Water Management District say they have seen no similar surge in irrigation among growers with infected trees.
Growers on Swiftmud's overpumping list say they need more water because greening - believed to be caused by bacteria that's spread by an insect known as the Asian citrus psyllid - shrivels up their trees' roots.
"We have to keep the water on the trees on a regular basis because the root system can't take in as much water," said Dennis Carlton, a Hillsborough grower whose grove is on Swiftmud's list.
By increasing the irrigation, they can continue collecting fruit a while longer. Knowing what the trees need is just a matter of experience, the growers said.
"When you see your leaves curling up, you know you've got to give it some water," said Ellis Hunt Jr. of Hunt Brothers, the Polk County cooperative that produces the Florida's Natural brand of orange juice. "But nobody is running their pumps more than is necessary. ... Nobody is going to burn $4 a gallon diesel fuel if they don't have to."
Hunt Brothers' groves show up on the overpumping list more than any other growers. Some exceeded their permit just a little -- pumping 412,000 gallons one day in February, rather than the 411,000 permitted. But one day last year, at a Polk grove, Hunt Brothers pumped more than 282,000 gallons when it was permitted to use about 116,000.
Hunt said that when he talked to Swiftmud officials about the violations of the permits, he told them the agency should issue new permits allowing the growers to pump even more water.
"We're fighting for survival and we plan to win," Hunt said. "I don't think Swiftmud wants to be responsible for the demise of the citrus industry by not giving us the water we need."
But the lead author of the University of Florida's guide for growers on dealing with citrus greening, Ron Brlansky, was surprised to learn any growers have been pouring so much extra water on their infected trees.
"That's the first time I've ever heard of that," said Brlansky, a plant pathologist with a Ph. D.
The guide he helped to write instead recommends spraying infected trees with insecticide and then cutting them down before the disease spreads.
And the citrus extension agent for Polk and Hillsborough counties, Chris Oswalt, said trees showing the symptoms of greening shouldn't necessarily need more or less water.
Overpumping from the aquifer can bring expensive penalties. In 2009, Swiftmud threatened to hit Tampa Bay Water with a $1 million fine for overpumping during a drought. In 2005, the Englewood Water District near Sarasota faced fines of more than $400,000 for overpumping.
But rather than sue or fine the growers, Swiftmud has been working with them to find other ways to conserve water, Beltran said. He said in some cases the agency is "working with them on their permits" to see if the limit can be changed.
He said so far there has been no sign of their repeated overpumping causing damage to the aquifer. However, during an 11-day cold snap in 2010, farmers in Hillsborough and Polk counties pumped nearly 1 billion gallons of water a day out of the aquifer, making the water level drop 60 feet and creating about 100 sinkholes.
Florida produces more than 70 percent of the United States' supply of citrus and is second only to Brazil in global production. More than 500,000 acres of citrus groves, mostly in the southern two-thirds of the state's peninsula, are covered by more than 74 million citrus trees.
A University of Florida study last year concluded that citrus greening had cost Florida's economy at least $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs since 2006. This year, the Legislature authorized $9.5 million for research into greening's causes and potential cures, and this week Gov. Rick Scott pledged his support for saving the industry from this latest scourge.
Swiftmud has launched a three-year study on greening to ensure permitting decisions are based on science, Beltran said. Hunt said when he was told about this, "I said fine, you can do all the studying you want. But I don't need some $200,000 study to tell me when I need to water my trees."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which contains information from the Treasure Coast Newspapers. Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com
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What is citrus greening and is it treatable?
Citrus greening is believed to be caused by bacteria that is spread by an insect known as the Asian citrus psyllid. It shrivels up their trees' roots, so the roots don't absorb water as well, and the trees begin dying. A University of Florida guide recommends spraying infected trees with insecticide and cutting them down before the disease spreads.