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SWFMD: Water restrictions on farmers during freezes | News

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SWFMD: Water restrictions on farmers during freezes
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Brooksville, Florida - The Southwest Florida Water Management District Tuesday voted to impose harsher watering restrictions on farmers during freezes. The rules are designed to prevent sinkholes and dry wells in Dover and Plant City.

In January of 2010, for the first time in recorded history, temperatures in eastern Hillsborough County dropped below 34 degrees for 11 consecutive days.

See Also: Strawberries survive morning freeze

To prevent their crops from freezing, farmers pumped an estimated 900 million gallons of groundwater per day over their crops.  As a result, the aquifer level dropped 60 feet and caused more than 750 nearby homeowners' wells to temporarily dry up.

Also, about 140 sinkholes opened in nearby neighborhoods and on roads.

Although farmers were within their rights to pump the groundwater, SFWMD wants to make sure a similar situation doesn't happen again.

Since then, SFWMD designated a 256-square mile "water use caution area," which includes the portions of eastern Hillsborough County that were subject to sinkholes and dry wells last January.

SFWMD held a public workshop and a series of meetings to discuss proposed rule changes in the area, which include digging deeper wells and sending automatic phone calls to encourage homeowners to turn off their well pumps during freezes.

But SFWMD wants farmers to put their water use in check during freezes as well. And today they made it official, with a vote recommending a 20-percent reduction in farmers' freeze pumping over the next decade.

"We're encouraging farmers to use alternatives like cloths over their crops or tailwater recovery ponds," said SFWMD spokesperson Robyn Felix.

A tailwater recovery pond is a pond that captures irrigation runoff and then recirculates that water to be reused.  It can cost between $100,000 to $200,000.

Felix says SFWMD will pick up 75% of the tab to put new methods in place.

The water regulating agency says it will also be paying for and installing new electric water meters on farmland so it can keep tabs on the amount of water being used in real time.

The new guidelines are currently voluntary, but when farmers come up for permit renewal, they would need to work with SFWMD to prove that they're doing all they can to keep water usage in check, Felix said.

It's unclear when they would be enforced and when the new rules would go into effect. The Legislature recently passed a law that states that any change amounting to an economic impact $1 million or more has to be approved by them.

Over the next two weeks, SWFMD will look at ways to reduce the economic impact so that the Legislature does not have to approve these new rules. If that happens, the new rules could go into effect as early as late February.

Under the plan, SFWMD would pay for 75 percent of the cost of the farmers' water management projects.

"In the last couple months, we've had about ten projects come in for funding," Felix explained.

There's even a blueberry farmer who's implementing a wind project that use machinery to push cold air off their crops, she said.

The new guidelines also set the aquifers threshold at 10 feet above sea level.

Felix says water managers noticed the problems with sinkholes and dry wells occurring when the water level dipped below that point.

While the current level is still a ways away from the 10 feet threshold, Felix says pumping on Monday morning caused the levels to drop by 13 feet.  It's a number that fluctuates as the water seeps back into the aquifer and as more water is pumped.

She tells 10 News they have only received a handful of complaints about dry wells over the last few days.

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