TAMPA — The delicate balance between providing enough water to drink and enough to keep the lower reaches of the Hillsborough River from becoming a dry riverbed is wobbling as the city of Tampa appears poised to get a permit to augment river flow with aquifer water pumped from the Morris Bridge Sink in Thonotosassa.
Lining up against the proposal is a cadre of environmentalists who say the drawdown will ruin wetlands in that area, nearby homeowners who say their wells will be fouled and others who say freshwater can be gotten from other sources with no adverse impact on the ecology.
A string of opponents rose to speak at a governing board meeting of the Southwest Florida Water Management District on Tuesday morning. Most urged the agency that oversees water resources in a 16-county area that includes the Tampa Bay region to hold back on implementing the pumping project.
The district owns the property on which the Morris Bridge Sink is located and has joined the city of Tampa in applying for the permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to increase minimum water flow in the lower Hillsborough River south of a dam at Rowlett Park.
The dam was built more than 100 years ago to hold back the flow of the river to create a 1,300-acre reservoir for drinking water.
In times of drought, no water flows over the spillway and the lower Hillsborough River level drops, fed only by water pumped into the river bed from Sulphur Springs and the Tampa Bypass Canal.
The city wants water from the Morris Bridge Sink to supplement those water sources and keep the lower river flowing at appropriate levels, established by the water district a decade ago.
Since the minimum flows were established, the ecology of the lower part of the river has improved and is now home to a wider variety of fish and wildlife and birds.
The DEP has signaled that it intends to issue the permit for pumping up to 4 million gallons a day from the Morris Bridge Sink, which is a body of water that reaches about 200 feet into the aquifer. It is 135 feet in diameter and is one of two sinkholes in that area.
But there is opposition to the plan.
Phil Compton, with the Friends of the Hillsborough River, agreed that “the river needs a little freshwater every day and the lower Hillsborough River really has made a comeback with the water from Sulphur Springs and the Tampa Bypass Canal.
“But, it’s not right to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “The solution is not with Morris Bridge Sink, but with the bypass canal.”
He and others asked the district’s governing board to delay the request for the permit from the state to further study the hydrology of the proposal.
“Let’s come back and talk about this,” he said.
Kent Bailey, chairman of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club said his group also opposes the permit to pump water from the Morris Bridge Sink.
He said the district itself has identified that area “as a significant ecological feature of the Lower Hillsborough River Preserve which has wildlife that also will be adversely affected by the draw-down.”
He said there are three separate wetland areas near the sink, two of which are in pristine condition, and a draw-down of the sink would significantly impact those areas.
“The Tampa Bypass Canal is the better source for water to enhance the minimum flow of the river,” he said. “Please, just slow down and reconsider this. Take another look.”
The board heard comments but offered no comments and took no action on the matter.
Brad Baird, administrator of Tampa Public Works and Utility Services, urged the board to stay the course with the permit, saying it’s important to maintain the minimum flow of the river at all times to protect the ecology of the river.
“Tampa supports moving forward with the Morris Bridge Sink project,” he said. There are four sources identified to meet minimum flow standards of the lower part of the river, he said, and the Morris Bridge Sink would be used only if necessary.
He cited a study of the river levels between January 2008 and May 2010. Over those 29 months, he said, the river dropped to a level that would have required extra water from the Morris Bridge Sink for only six months out of that period.
Others who are objecting to the plan include the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) and former state lawmaker Mary Figg, former EPC Director Richard Garrity and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt.
For decades after it was built, the dam that creates the reservoir blocked the natural river flow, damaging the waterway’s natural ecology in the lower part of the river.
When there is plenty of rain and an abundance of water, the dam’s spillway opens and water flows down the river. In times of drought, no water spills over the dam.
The water district established requirements for minimum flows and officials developed plans that called for pumping freshwater from the four sources to the river to ensure the year-round flow below the dam.
Sid Flannery, retired chief environmental scientist at the water district for some 30 years, said water from Sulphur Springs and the Tampa Bypass Canal can meet the lower river’s needs. He said those two sources have provided enough water to keep the lower river at or above it’s minimum flow standards on most days.
Flannery suggested using Morris Bridge Sink solely for potable water during severe droughts, using generators and temporary piping. This would not require permanent infrastructure and would not pose an ongoing threat to wetlands, he said.
During a drought in 2000, temporary pumping of the Morris Bridge Sink was done and surrounding private residential wells felt the effects.
Chet Joyner lives near the Morris Bridge Sink and said that when the district set up a temporary pump that year to retrieve water from the sink, his well was destroyed.
It was replaced with a deeper well, and in 2009, when a test pump was installed in the sink and pumped out 4 million gallons a day, the quality of Joyner’s well water fell again, he said.
He is concerned that if water is pumped out of the sink, his well will go dry.
“We have no access to public water,” he said. “You are jeopardizing the safety of our only water source.”