News Feature | October 8, 2015

Man-Eating Sinkholes And Other Florida Water Shortage Crises

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A sinkhole that took the life of a Florida man two years ago appears to have reopened over the summer.

“Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and others agencies responded to a report of a sinkhole in Seffner, a town east of Tampa, in the same location where a man died in 2013,” The Washington Post reported.

“It is believed that this reopening may have been as a result from the heavy rains in the area,” USA Today reported, citing the fire department.

Sinkholes are correlated with groundwater pumping. “If pumping results in a lowering of groundwater levels, then underground structural failure, and thus, sinkholes, can occur,” the U.S. Geological Survey explains.

According to the Why Files, a publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, groundwater pumping is often responsible for Florida’s sinkholes:

In cold winters in the strawberry fields east of Tampa, Fla., farmers pump groundwater so they can spray their crops to prevent freezing. “In 2010, this opened about 140 sinkholes,” says Mark Stewart, professor of geology at the University of South Florida. “Most of them did not damage homes, but several did, and there was some damage to an interstate highway.”

Groundwater pumping takes a heavy toll on Florida, and sinkholes are just one kind of crisis that can result. Water management crises are another offshoot of groundwater pumping in Florida, even though it is among the wettest states in the country.

“A 13-day winter cold front in 2010 sent two Hillsborough towns into a water management crisis. Excessive groundwater pumping by strawberry farmers spraying to keep their produce alive caused wells to dry up, sinkholes to open and the amount of water available to neighboring households to plummet,” Watchdog Sarasota reported.

In the years since, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, has studied groundwater pumping, the report said, citing Claire Muirehead, a water use permit evaluation manager.

“We need to be able to provide water supply for the people that we have in our state now, but we also need to make sure that there is available water supply for future generations while also protecting the environment,” she said.

Around 15 billion gallons of water are available to Florida each day from groundwater and surface water, according to the report, which cited AP-APME and the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Use Information Program. About 14 billion gallons are devoted to households, factories, irrigation, livestock, aquaculture, thermoelectric power plants and mining.

Christopher Cole, Sarasota County's public utilities planning supervisor, said water management in the area has never been a cakewalk.

“It's always been a challenging process,” Cole said. “I have reports that go back to the late '60s talking about planning for future water supply to meet future demands.”

To read more about the challenges posed by drought, visit Water Online’s Water Scarcity Solutions Center.