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Hillsborough environmentalists, Swiftmud settle dispute over sinkhole pumping plan

After opposition from enviroonmental groups, the city of Temple Terrace and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, officials with the Southwest Florida Water Management District has agreed to add conditions to its plan to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water a day from the Morris Bridge Sink, a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.
After opposition from enviroonmental groups, the city of Temple Terrace and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, officials with the Southwest Florida Water Management District has agreed to add conditions to its plan to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water a day from the Morris Bridge Sink, a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.
Published Jan. 12, 2016

TAMPA — With a deadline looming, water management officials and citizen groups this week settled their differences over a groundwater pumping plan that critics fear would help solve one environmental problem but create another.

On Tuesday, the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission and the private group Friends of the River said they would not challenge a proposed permit to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water a day from the Morris Bridge Sink, a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.

"We are extremely happy that we do not have to go to court," said John Ovink, an attorney and co-founder of Friends of the River. Opponents had to decide by Wednesday whether to fight the pumping plan.

"We do not feel that we need to challenge this permit," EPC general counsel Rick Tschantz told Hillsborough County commissioners, who comprise the EPC's board. "There are other ways to minimize or eliminate the impacts of pumping at the Morris Bridge Sink that we have worked out."

On Monday, EPC officials and Friends of the River met with the Southwest Florida Water Management District to add conditions to its plan for the pumping, including:

• Requiring Swiftmud to come up with and implement a mitigation plan if signs of environmental damage show up in the sinkhole, nearby wetlands or neighboring private wells. A plan could include turning off the pump and could be put into action in as little as a day, Tschantz said.

• Putting its reports and data on pumping and its effects on the web for public review.

• Expanding its monitoring program to address environmental impacts of the pumping.

Taking water from the Morris Bridge sinkhole is part of a larger strategy to keep the Hillsborough River flowing at a minimum level during dry spells.

Established in 2007, the plan aims to keep saltier water from the Tampa Bay out of the river, an important sport fish nursery.

So water from Sulphur Springs, a collection of sinkholes known as the Blue Sink and the Tampa Bypass Canal is pumped to the city of Tampa's reservoir to be used to augment the flow of the river downstream from the city dam at Rowlett Park.

The Morris Bridge Sink is to be the fourth source of water for that river flow project. Swiftmud has applied for a 20-year state permit to pump an average of 2 million gallons of water a day from the sinkhole.

In response, the Friends of the River, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club and the city of Temple Terrace objected.

Critics worry that pumping water from the sinkhole could damage wetlands and compromise private wells, something that happened after emergency pumping during a severe drought in 2000.

They also contended that there's more water available from the bypass canal than the plan presumes, so those withdrawals should be increased before any water is taken from the Morris Bridge Sink.

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In addition to the other conditions, Swiftmud agreed that in 2018 it will review an estimate that 25 percent of the water pumped to the city of Tampa's reservoir to be used to boost the flow of the river is lost to evaporation. Skeptics have challenged the methodology behind the estimate, saying it overstates the amount of water that needs to be pumped from somewhere else to keep the river flowing.

Tschantz said environmental groups hope that reviews Swiftmud is scheduled to make of the minimum flow needed for the river, the strategy to achieve that and the loss estimate from the reservoir will mostly or completely eliminate the need to pump from the Morris Bridge Sink.

On Tuesday, however, a couple of Hillsborough County commissioners wanted assurances that Swiftmud would come to the aid of neighbors if pumping causes their wells to fail.

"We will monitor those private wells," said Estella Gray, a Swiftmud government affairs program manager. If a well goes dry because of the pumping, "it would be our responsibility."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com. Follow @Danielson_Times

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