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WaterMatters

icy citrus image

On the morning of Jan. 9, 2010, after six consecutive days of freezing temperatures, District Executive Director Dave Moore called Alba Más, Tampa’s regulation director, for an assessment of the Plant City/Dover area in Eastern Hillsborough County.

So far, so good, with only minimal impacts reported.

However, beginning on the seventh consecutive day of freezing temperatures, and entering uncharted territory, the reports began flooding in of dry wells and sinkholes. By the time the historic 11-day cold snap was over, the District had logged more than 750 dry well complaints and almost 140 sinkhole complaints. District staff mobilized to respond to the emergency.

Background
During freezes, farmers protect some types of crops by spraying them with groundwater. As the warmer groundwater freezes, the process releases heat that protects the crops from the harsh temperatures. This method of protection is a best management practice that has been extensively researched by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

With more than 7,500 acres of farming activity concentrated in the Plant City/Dover area, about 37 million gallons of water per day is permitted for average agricultural irrigation. However, during freezes, the farmers are allowed to pump up to nearly a billion gallons a day on a temporary basis.

Historic Cold Snap
Cold snaps that last one or two days are relatively common in the Dover/Plant City areas. The crop protection withdrawals associated with such short-duration cold snaps generally have minimal effect on nearby wells because the groundwater levels drop less than 30 feet. The previous record cold snap of six days in a row had only occurred three times in about 80 years of data.

In January 2010, the area faced a record 11-day cold snap as farmers pumped water to protect their crops and aquifer levels dropped 60 feet. Hundreds of wells in the area stopped working as water levels fell below the depth of pumps, and residents began calling the District to report problems. Even some people who had turned off their pumps to protect the equipment during the freeze event were experiencing problems.

Responding to the Crisis
“We already had procedures in place for handling dry well complaints. However, a few days into the event, our office went from receiving only a few calls a day to needing five people to handle the calls throughout the day,” said Alba Más, District Tampa regulation director.

The office was in unfamiliar territory, as it had never before had to cope with so many calls. Recognizing that the flood of calls was overwhelming the existing process, the District mobilized an action team and duties of staff were shifted to respond to the crisis.

“We had staff throughout the District helping — there were many departments involved in the response in one way or another,” said Más.

Call Center Mobilized
The office set up a call center. Up to 35 District employees took calls, investigated complaints and contacted permit holders. Staff conducting the investigations tracked down each well’s location and determined if the well was within a water use permit holder’s mitigation area, in which case the permit holder was required to get the well working again. Investigations were typically completed within 24 hours of an incoming call. In addition to contacting responsible permit holders, staff communicated with the well owners to ensure progress was being made to restore their water.

Staff also stayed connected with people whose wells did not fall within any permit holder’s mitigation area. This extra contact helped to assess the severity of the situation so that emergency funds could be requested to assist those well owners.

The District created a web page where well owners could get up-to-date information on whom to call and what the District was doing to support them. The Communications Department worked with the news media, and Community & Legislative Affairs staff stayed in contact with state and local government officials. While the Tampa Regulation Department tracked dry well complaints, the well construction staff in Brooksville tracked sinkholes, working closely with the Florida Geological Survey to ensure information was shared between state and local agencies.

Emergency Funds Allocated
Members of the District’s Governing Board saw their January meeting agenda change radically as the January 2010 freeze event became the focus. Board members listened to staff, discussed options and then set aside $250,000 in emergency funds. Moore declared an emergency, allowing the District to use the funds to assist the remaining eastern Hillsborough County residents who were without water and did not qualify for mitigation by a permit holder. The emergency order allowed District staff to hire licensed well contractors to make appropriate well repairs or replacements, if needed. The emergency order also allowed the District to step in and have wells repaired or replaced if the responsible party was unable to meet their 15-day deadline. In those cases, the District is seeking reimbursement for the funds from the responsible permit holder.

“We recognized the hardship this was causing residents in the Dover and Plant City areas,” said Moore. “Our priority was to get these wells working as quickly as possible.”

Well Construction Regulation Manager Tony Gilboy and Field Technician Adam Hange worked closely with homeowners and kept them informed about their well repairs and what it would take to get them working. Some homeowners were able to run a hose from a neighboring house for a temporary water supply, while others had no temporary source of water at all. According to Gilboy, some wells needed basic repairs, while others required much more.

“The District made the decision early on that if we were going to repair a well, we were going to make it better than it was before the freeze,” said Gilboy. “Sometimes we were dealing with people whose well may have been in poor condition before the freeze. In some cases we had to drill new wells because the wells were in such bad shape there wasn’t anything else we could do with them.”

As a result of Gilboy and Hange’s efforts, the District received several phone calls and letters from homeowners thanking the District for its quick response.

“People were very appreciative that the District responded so quickly,” said Gilboy. “They knew we had a lot going on — there wasn’t anyone who was irate or demanding.”

As of March 30, the District has spent about $64,000 of the $250,000 the Board set aside to repair or replace 15 wells for residents that needed help but didn’t have other ways to get their water restored quickly. When all invoices are paid, less than half of the emergency funds will have been spent, since some wells eventually came back on their own and well construction staff has been closely supervising all the contracted work.

Gilboy’s staff was also responsible for tracking sinkholes, which meant they spoke with many concerned homeowners.

“Folks whose homes were affected were pretty upset,” said Gilboy. “A lot of county roads were affected, which caused a lot of inconvenience for people. Just the fact that we made visits gave people some hope that someone was watching, noticing — that someone knew they had problems. Folks were just happy someone was out there, happy that we were responding.”

Searching for Long-Term Solutions
The District’s response to the January 2010 freeze event is now shifting to long-term solutions. To hear from the people who were most affected, an evening workshop was held on Feb. 17 in Plant City. The meeting was open to the general public and invitations were extended to key industry stakeholders — citrus, strawberry, blueberry, nursery, fish farm, well drilling and others. Elected officials and their representatives from area governments, including Hillsborough County and Plant City, attended as well as members of the media. Governing Board Members Todd Pressman, Hugh Gramling, Sallie Parks and Doug Tharp were also there to hear from the public firsthand.

The workshop focused on three issues: what happened during the freeze, current strategies used to manage freeze events and strategies that should be considered for the future. More than 300 people attended, and Moore and District staff members were on hand to hear their stories. Citizens stepped up to the microphone — 44 in all — and shared their struggles, many of which focused on sinkholes.

Using the public feedback received from the workshop, at least three technical work sessions are planned for District staff, technical experts and industry representatives to meet, share ideas and come up with solutions. After the work sessions are completed, the District will hold additional public workshops to accept public comment on staff proposals. To keep the general public informed, meeting summaries and working documents are available at WaterMatters.org/frost-freeze.

Governing Board Chairman Todd Pressman expressed the Board’s appreciation of the hard work that went into staff’s response to the freeze event.

“I am impressed with the professionalism, the attention to public concerns and the citizen-by-citizen contacts that have taken place in addressing this public emergency,” said Pressman.

March–April 2010
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