TAMPA — Tallahassee plans to grant the permit, but the debate over a project to pump millions of gallons of water from a sinkhole in the 16,000-acre Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve is not over.
On Tuesday, the head of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission urged the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board to delay its plans to pump an average of 2 million gallons a day from what's known as the Morris Bridge Sink.
"It is a pristine wetland that is an eco-tourism spot internationally, and it deserves our protection," EPC executive director Janet Dougherty told the board. Outside the meeting, she said, "we have concerns with the permit moving forward that there's not reasonable assurance to protect the wetlands system that exists at the headwaters of the Hillsborough River."
Swiftmud has applied for a Florida Department of Environmental Protection permit to pump, at peak times, up to 3.9 million gallons of water a day from the Morris Bridge Sink. That water would be used, along with water from three other sources, to keep the Hillsborough River flowing at a minimum level downstream from the city of Tampa's dam and water supply reservoir.
The minimum flow strategy has been in place since 2007 to protect the health of the freshwater zone of the Tampa Bay estuary, a critically important breeding ground for fish and other wildlife.
Dougherty, a former Swiftmud board member, noted that the public has spent a billion dollars developing resources such as Tampa Bay Water's desalination plan and the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, both in Hillsborough County. She suggested the city could get the water it needs for the river by buying it from Tampa Bay Water.
"Our concern is they want to pump this sink during the drought," she said. "The environment does not have the opportunity to purchase water from a regional water supply."
Dougherty was joined by the nonprofit Friends of the Hillsborough River, the Sierra Club of Tampa Bay, Swiftmud's retired lead scientist on a series of projects related to the issue, and a neighbor near the preserve whose well has been damaged by past pumping.
"I fear the pumping you are requesting will jeopardize the safety of our only water source; please help us," said Chet Joyner, whose Thonotosassa home is just north of the sinkhole. In 2000, his well and those of a dozen neighbors had to be replaced after emergency pumping from the Morris Bridge Sink during a severe drought. In 2009, he said, Swiftmud ran a test on the sinkhole that disturbed his new well, requiring added filtration.
Critics say the minimum flow strategy is flawed — that it over-estimates water losses from the reservoir, thus overstating the amount of water that needs to be pumped, and that it would be smarter to take more water from the Tampa Bypass Canal.
"The solution is right back here behind us in the Tampa Bypass Canal," said Phil Compton of the Friends of the River. Retired Swiftmud environmental scientist Sid Flannery said the Army Corps of Engineers dug into the Upper Floridan Aquifer when it created the bypass canal decades ago, resulting in an existing freshwater flow that's been estimated at up to 20 million gallons a day.
Cautioned by their attorney not to give opponents something they could use in a challenge to the permit, Swiftmud board members offered little response to the environmentalists' critique.
"I can assure you that staff is very sensitive on this matter," Swiftmud board chairman Michael Babb said.
But the city of Tampa's top utilities official "strongly" urged Swiftmud to go ahead with the project.
There are four sources of water identified to meet the minimum flows of the lower Hillsborough River, city public works and utilities services administrator Brad Baird said. Before any water for the river is taken from the Morris Bridge Sink, it will be pumped first from Sulphur Springs, then a complex of sinkholes known as the Blue Sink and then from the bypass canal.
So the Morris Bridge Sink "is the last source of water to be used," Baird said.
Still, he said, it is needed. Drought data from January 2008 through May 2010 showed that water from the Morris Bridge Sink would have been needed to keep the river flowing at the established minimum level during six of those 29 months.
Outside the meeting, Baird said critics' arguments about the amount of loss from the reservoir take into account how much water evaporates from the surface, but not how much leaks from the reservoir or from a water control gate.
And an official from Tampa Bay Water told the Swiftmud board that water is not always available from the Tampa Bypass Canal.
Tampa Bay Water has two permits to take water from the canal — one to meet regional supply needs and one to augment the flow of the river. But it has to stop pumping if the level of the bypass canal drops below limits set by the Army Corps of Engineers. That's happened in four of the last seven years.
"There are times when our flows have to cease and we have to shift to other water supply sources to make up that difference," Tampa Bay Water permitting manager Warren Hogg said. "It's something that occurs with some regularity."
This issue will get discussed further this week when the Hillsborough County Commission meets as the board of the EPC on Thursday.
EPC officials hope the state will agree to a 90-day extension on the permit becoming final, giving them time for a more in-depth discussion with Swiftmud without having to file a legal challenge. If an extension is not forthcoming, opponents would have until Christmas Eve to file a petition for an administrative hearing where they could challenge the permit. Richard Brown of Friends of the River said opponents see a legal challenge as a last resort.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times