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Request to pump water from Hillsborough wilderness preserve sinkhole heads for approval

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is poised to approve a request to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water per day from a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.

The state issued a notice Friday that it intends to approve the Southwest Florida Water Management District's requested permit, which is opposed by the nonprofit Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the city of Temple Terrace.

Environmental advocates worry the pumping could dry out nearby wetlands in the 16,000-acre nature preserve.

"Our primary concern is we're jeopardizing damaging — unnecessarily — an area that is pristine, unique and quintessentially Floridian," Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey said Monday. "We have alternatives that have no environmental impact. We just don't need to do this."

But state environmental officials concluded that the proposed pumping won't interfere with any existing legal use of water and is reasonable, beneficial and consistent with the public interest.

The purpose of the $2.1 million project is to help maintain a healthy flow of fresh water in the Hillsborough River below the city of Tampa's dam and to keep salt water from Tampa Bay from coming upstream where it could harm fish and other wildlife during dry periods.

To do that, local and state officials came up with a plan in 2007 to boost the flow of the river with fresh water pumped from four sources. First, they pump water from Sulphur Springs and a complex of sinkholes known as the Blue Sink. If more water is needed, it's pumped from the Tampa Bypass Canal.