Farmers should not put the public at risk for sinkholes

Shortly after a blast of cold weather started this year,’sinkholes around the Tampa Bay area became a problem. The two appear to be strongly linked.

Florida farmers pumped water on their crops all night during the unusually long cold spell to form a protective layer of ice, which caused the aquifer to drop a record 60 feet below normal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

‘With a drop of 60 feet, you’d definitely expect to see sinkhole activity,’ Ann Tihansky of the USGS said to the St. Petersburg Times.

At least 22 sinkholes have opened up in Hillsborough County, and more than 300 people have called the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, to report problems with private wells, according to the Times.

This situation is something farmers and the state could have done more to avert. After all, it’s not the first time’excessive pumping has dried up wells and caused sinkholes.’During a freeze in 1983, pumping drained the aquifer’40 feet, causing 40 sinkholes, Mark Stewart, geology professor at USF, said to the Times.

Agriculture is an important part of Florida’s economy, but saving crops should not come at the expense of public safety. Sinkholes have closed off several roads, including parts of Interstate 4. A sinkhole near USF’s campus shut down’50th Street from Fowler Avenue to Elm Drive last week.

Even with all the excessive pumping, Florida crop growers still suffered heavy losses.

‘Up to 30 percent of the crops have been damaged or destroyed,’ Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said to legislators last week.

Bronson estimates the losses will reach in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Clearly, a better strategy is needed to combat cold weather. This would benefit farmers and taxpayers, whose money is used to repair sinkholes.

One solution would be requiring farmers or giving them incentives to drill deeper wells. In 2002, Swiftmud began requiring new agricultural wells in the Dover area to be 600 to 800 feet deep, but existing wells weren’t required to change.

If farmers were required to use deeper wells, they wouldn’t be competing with shallower private sources for water. Ways to keep crops from freezing without wasting water should also be explored.

Whatever reforms are made, farmers should not be allowed to put their neighbors at risk while wasting water.