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Request to pump water from Hillsborough wilderness preserve sinkhole heads for approval

Residents near the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve are worried about the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s request to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water per day from a sinkhole known as the Morris Bridge Sink. [SKIP O’ROURKE | Times]
Published Dec. 8, 2015

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is poised to approve a request to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water per day from a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.

The state issued a notice Friday that it intends to approve the Southwest Florida Water Management District's requested permit, which is opposed by the nonprofit Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the city of Temple Terrace.

Environmental advocates worry the pumping could dry out nearby wetlands in the 16,000-acre nature preserve.

"Our primary concern is we're jeopardizing damaging — unnecessarily — an area that is pristine, unique and quintessentially Floridian," Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey said Monday. "We have alternatives that have no environmental impact. We just don't need to do this."

But state environmental officials concluded that the proposed pumping won't interfere with any existing legal use of water and is reasonable, beneficial and consistent with the public interest.

The purpose of the $2.1 million project is to help maintain a healthy flow of fresh water in the Hillsborough River below the city of Tampa's dam and to keep salt water from Tampa Bay from coming upstream where it could harm fish and other wildlife during dry periods.

To do that, local and state officials came up with a plan in 2007 to boost the flow of the river with fresh water pumped from four sources. First, they pump water from Sulphur Springs and a complex of sinkholes known as the Blue Sink. If more water is needed, it's pumped from the Tampa Bypass Canal.

The latest request is to pump water from a sinkhole known as the Morris Bridge Sink in northeast Hillsborough County.

The amount of water pumped from the Morris Bridge Sink would vary based on the need and hydrological conditions, but Swiftmud officials have said it would average about 2 million gallons a day over the course of a year. They do not expect the pumping to have a significant impact on nearby water resources.

Neighbors in Thonotosassa, though, aren't so sure.

In 2000, Tampa Bay Water replaced 13 residential wells that failed after the agency pumped 6.7 million gallons of water per day from the sinkhole during a drought.

The state permit would require Swiftmud to monitor water levels in sinkholes, marshes, wetlands and the aquifer near the Morris Bridge Sink, assess the impact of the pumping on nearby areas on an annual basis and investigate any complaints that its pumping had damaged nearby wells.

Swiftmud also would have to report to the Department of Environmental Protection how much water it pumps to ensure that its withdrawals are within permitted limits, according to Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.

But the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission wants the state to go further. It has requested the creation of a trigger that would force pumping to stop if there were signs that it hurt the sinkhole.

And it would be smarter, environmentalists contend, for Swiftmud to pump more water from the Tampa Bypass Canal.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug the bypass canal to help with flood control in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it breached the top of the Upper Floridan Aquifer, they say. As a result, the bypass canal already discharges significant amounts of fresh water, by one estimate up to 20 million gallons a day, that they say should be used before any more water from sinkholes.

Opponents have 21 days to file a request for an administrative hearing on the permit.

"We are considering a range of options and haven't decided on what our response is going to be as yet," Bailey said. "I don't foresee no response from the environmental community."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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