As groundwater rises, worries follow

Subdivisions built in times of drought are finding plentiful rain a bane.

Roads are crumbling in one, and flooding is a problem in several areas.


Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times

Published October 24, 2004

TRINITY - The blacktop has a bleached look, with cracks in the roads and hubcap-sized potholes in a few rough patches. In some spots the asphalt literally is crumbling.

"In my mind, they (the road surfaces) looked like crumbled-up brownies," County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

And they're in the last place you'd expect to find them: the upscale Trinity-area neighborhood of Thousand Oaks west, where the roads are just two years old and the trim pastel homes go for $200,000 to $300,000.

The booming Trinity area that seems to have it all - nice homes, shiny new shopping centers and a great location for Tampa Bay-area commuters - has a serious drainage problem, too. It's not just Thousand Oaks. In some pockets of Trinity Oaks and Fox Hollow, floodwaters covered the roads after this year's storms.

Ground Squirrel Drive in Nature's Hideaway became a river after Frances, with water so deep even truck drivers didn't dare cross it. The floodwaters nearly covered the mailboxes and lapped at residents' garage doors.

Trinity was one of 26 Pasco areas that flooded this year as Frances, Jeanne and heavy rain storms drenched the county. On average, this region sees 45.32 inches of rain from January to September. This year it saw 63.04 inches.

Officials plan to spend a half-million dollars of taxpayer money to study the problem in the greater Trinity area and identify solutions. Pasco County government and the Southwest Florida Water Management District will split the bill. The County Commission will vote Tuesday on starting the study.

County engineer Jim Widman told one homeowners' group last week that the area might need some "major fixes," and if that means creating new drainage ponds, it won't be cheap.

The fingerpointing already has begun: Homeowners blame developers, others fault the regulatory agencies, and the developers of Thousand Oaks and Trinity blame each other.

One of the key culprits, if you can call it that, is Tampa Bay Water. Now that the agency has dramatically reduced its groundwater pumping, the water table in Pasco County has returned to healthy levels - higher than developers anticipated when they designed some of the subdivisions in the Trinity area.

The higher water table affects everything: It means the ground cannot absorb as much rainwater as developers thought. It means the drainage retention areas need to be larger, or they need to allow water to flow out faster.

In Thousand Oaks west, county experts say, it means the water is pushing up from underneath the roads and eroding the limerock base. It means the neighborhood streets that were supposed to last 20 years are crumbling after two.

* * *

Paulette Zbikowski grew concerned after Frances. In her 11 years in Trinity Oaks, she had seen plenty of heavy rains - but this time the water pooled on the roads and took a couple of days to drain away. Some spots were a few inches deep.

"We incurred a lot more water in the streets," said Zbikowski, a board member of the Trinity Oaks Property Owners' Association. "Therefore we realized it wasn't flowing out properly. There obviously has to be a blockage somewhere."

The roads were submerged in neighboring Thousand Oaks west, with a couple of feet of water in the deepest spots. Cherie Stingle said her husband didn't feel safe driving his SUV through it.

That worries the stay-at-home mom.

"If there's an emergency for our children - we can't get out," Stingle said.

The homeowners' group already had been talking to the county about the neighborhood's drainage problems and deteriorating roads. A county-hired consultant concluded the pavement was crumbling because groundwater was ruining the base, Assistant County Attorney Barbara Wilhite said.

"It is the county's intention to go after the developer and the engineer to fix those roads," Wilhite said.

But it doesn't make sense to repave them until the county fixes the larger drainage problem that is causing the erosion, she said. That's where the $500,000 study comes in.

It's actually a sweeping study covering roughly 5,000 acres from Gunn Highway and State Road 54 to the Anclote River, an area known as Duck Slough. Information about the contours of the land and the various drainage structures will go into a computer model, which will predict where the rainwater collects after certain kinds of storms, county engineer Jim Widman said.

Then consultant WCG/Neel-Schaffer, Inc. can identify the improvements needed for all of the trouble spots.

"Some areas in there are built high enough that they're not experiencing any problems whatsoever," Widman said. But in some of the lowest spots in Nature's Hideaway, for example, "water got precariously close to entering some homes" after the storms, he said.

The study will take six months, but it could be a couple of years before the drainage improvements are made and the roads are repaved in Thousand Oaks west.

* * *

How did it get to this point?

Part of the problem is the water table. It was lower in the 1980s, when Trinity developers submitted their plans, because of the heavy groundwater pumping in Pasco County that provided the drinking water for the Tampa Bay area, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said.

"At the time they were factoring in the impacts from the well fields," Molligan said.

Then Tampa Bay Water started drawing water from other sources, such as the Hillsborough River and the Tampa Bypass Canal. Pumping dropped dramatically from 153-million gallons a day to 78-million gallons a day, Hildebrand said.

"We had to do other stuff because we were ruining the environment," said Hildebrand, who represents Pasco County on the Tampa Bay Water board.

Now the water table is higher than Trinity developers planned, Molligan said.

Depending on the spot, he said, the actual high water mark is anywhere from a few inches to four feet above the level that developers had anticipated.

The water table already was rebounding when Sunfield Homes submitted plans in 1997 for the Thousand Oaks subdivision west of Little Road. Sunfield Homes wanted to use the same high water table level as the Trinity developer, Molligan said, but Swiftmud wanted to use the actual level.

As a compromise, Molligan said, the agency agreed to let Sunfield Homes design the subdivision six to 12 inches below the high water table.

"You're trying to work out the best and most fair number of where it's going to be," Molligan said.

Mike Orsi, vice president of Sunfield Homes, says his engineer followed all of the appropriate standards. He blames the surrounding Trinity developments for the flooding in Thousand Oaks west.

Orsi said Fox Wood, the development upstream, is sending too much water his way; and Trinity Oaks, the development downstream, is draining too slowly, causing water to back up in Thousand Oaks.

"If the guy in front of you slams on the brakes and the guy behind you doesn't hit the brakes fast enough, what happens to you?" Orsi said. "You get smooshed."

But, he added: "It's not your fault for being there."

Lew Friedland, president of Trinity developer Adam Smith Enterprises, said Orsi is wrong.

"We were there first," Friedland said, referring to the developments around Thousand Oaks. "He knew all the water he was going to get from us."

Friedland said none of the homes in the Trinity developments has flooded, and only a few isolated spots on the roads have flooded after the heavy rains.

"We have no flooding problems in Trinity," Friedland said. "We anticipated a higher water table when the pumping stopped. We knew that was going to happen. If they didn't consider that, that is their error, not ours."

* * *

The flooding is a touchy subject for some residents. They're upset about the damage to the roads and the greenery. The abundant oaks that lent their name to Thousand Oaks are now ashen posts, rotted from standing in water for months on end.

Some of the residents also worry about the stigma of having their neighborhood branded a flood-prone area, particularly because the flooding only happens in some spots and officials are working on solutions.

A Pasco Times reporter went to a meeting Wednesday in which county officials were discussing the drainage problems with Thousand Oaks homeowners in phases 6-9. But Steven Pratt, the group's president, told the reporter she was not allowed to attend - despite what county officials had told her.

As the reporter tried to interview two homeowners after the meeting, Pratt grabbed the reporter by the arm and pulled her several feet away. With a raised voice, he told her she was forbidden to write anything about the neighborhood's drainage problems.

"You can't put this in the newspaper!" said Pratt, who later said his home is worth $300,000. "This affects my property value!"

Other homeowners directed their frustration at the county. Residents repeatedly asked why the county won't halt development in Trinity until the drainage issues are fixed.

Each time Commissioner Hildebrand replied the county can't: People have a right to develop their property, as long as they follow the rules set by the county, Swiftmud and other agencies, she said.

That's little comfort to homeowners like Lisa Schumm, who saw water moccasins wash into Thousand Oaks when the neighborhood flooded.

"They need to stop development until they fix the problem," the stay-at-home mom said. "Because they're making money and we're getting screwed."