TAMPA — A dispute between environmental groups and the city of Tampa over a groundwater pumping permit in Thonotosassa has been resolved, at least for now.
Members of the Friends of the River said Monday they are satisfied with protections that the Southwest Florida Water Management District agreed to include in the permit to pump from the Morris Bridge Sink.
The water district, also known as Swiftmud, agreed to the provisions at a meeting Monday with the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club, and officials with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, said John Ovink, a member of the friends group and a lawyer.
“If need be, we can challenge this later,” Ovink said. “But for now, we are satisfied that sufficient safeguards are in put in place.”
The sink, a large sinkhole connected to the underground water source known as the aquifer, is in the pristine Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. Members of Friends of the River and Sierra Club argued that large-scale pumping there could damage the environment and is not really needed.
Tampa officials, on the other hand, say they need to draw from the sink to maintain a healthy flow of fresh water in the lower Hillsborough River when the river’s natural flow slows down. Tidal rivers like the Hillsborough need a blend of fresh and salty water to support a healthy fishery, as well as birds and other animals that depend on the fish for food.
One of the key provisions added to the permit calls for Swiftmud to monitor pumping in the sink for two years to see if the environmentalists’ concerns are justified.
“If studies at that point confirm that pumping is bad for Morris Bridge Sink and Swiftmud says they’re going to pump anyway, then our concerns today were vindicated and we can still challenge,” Ovink said.
The agreement forestalled a permit challenge that could have put Tampa and Hillsborough County at odds. County Environmental Protection Commission officials had many of the same concerns about the Morris Bridge permit as the environmental groups.
County commissioners, who also serve as the board for the Environmental Protection Commission, authorized their staff in December to ask for a delay in the permit. The request was denied, so county commissioners rescheduled their Thursday Environmental Protection Commission meeting to today to beat the Wednesday deadline for a challenge.
EPC Executive Director Janet Dougherty said she will recommend that commissioners approve the new permit language, which she called a “win-win.”
“I think everybody feels like they have environmental protections in the permit,” Dougherty said. “We’re all partnering for the health of the Hillsborough River.”
These other provisions, requested by the EPC and environmentalists, were accepted by Swiftmud:
♦ A 90-day action plan to mitigate any environmental damage detected by monitoring at the sink.
♦ A study of possibly using storage projects in lieu of groundwater pumping.
♦ No permanent pumping station at the sink.
♦ Aesthetic enhancements to hide the pumping machinery.
In a way the current dispute is a continuation of a longstanding battle between environmentalists and the city. In 2000, the Friends of the River filed a lawsuit against the city and Swiftmud for failing to maintain an adequate flow to the river below the city’s dam near Rowlett Park.
“The federal government says if you have a viable river, you have to take action to maintain minimum flows,” said Richard Brown of Friends of the River. “That’s when we filed suit.”
Tampa gets most of its drinking water from the 1,300-acre reservoir formed by the dam. During dry weather, little or no water flows through the dam’s spillways because the reservoir must be maintained at a minimum depth. If the reservoir level drops too low, the pumps at the city’s water treatment plant will malfunction.
“In the old days, from the 1970s to turn of this century, there was almost no water going over the dam unless it was a really hard rain,” Brown said. “The river was turning into a foul place.”
As a result of the lawsuit, a Lower Hillsborough recovery strategy was adopted by the Swiftmud governing board in 2007. The plan called for the lower river’s freshwater supply to be augmented by Sulphur Springs, the Tampa Bypass Canal, Blue Sink in north Tampa and the Morris Bridge Sink.
The city is getting ready to build the pumping station and pipes that will carry water from the Blue Sink, just west of where Florida Avenue intersects with Fowler Avenue, to the city’s dam. Once the project is finished, Brown said, the city won’t need Morris Bridge Sink. During dry weather, more water can be pumped out the bypass canal to make up any deficit.
“Blue Sink is pumping aquifer water to solve a surface water problem, which is not a good idea,” Brown said. “But it’s a sink in the middle of town; it’s an industrial area. While the consequences of pumping the aquifer are unclear, it’s not damaging anything that’s in good shape now.”
But water from both the sinks will be needed if the area is hit with a long drought, like the one from 2008 through 2010, said Brad Baird, Tampa’s public works and utilities administrator. A computer analysis of that period showed water from the Morris Bridge Sink would have been needed for six of the 29 months of the drought to meet the minimum flow levels in the recovery plan.
Brown argued that during a severe drought, Tampa can always buy water from Tampa Bay Water, the wholesale water utility that supplies 2.3 million people in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, as well as Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.
But Baird said the city can only take so much water out of the reservoir before it has to shut down the pumping engines. If that happens, and the city has to buy all its water from Tampa Bay Water, some sections of the city will suffer low water pressure.
“The bottom line is if we’re going to meet minimum flows,” he said, “especially during minimum flow times, we’re going to need the Morris Bridge Sink.”