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Tampa Bay Water agrees to pay couple $349,000

Tampa Bay Water has agreed to buy a home the couple say was damaged by overpumping of nearby wells.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


DADE CITY -- When Terry Sims and her husband built their house on Quail Run Drive in 1988, it was their dream home.

But the dream turned into a nightmare, Sims said.

Last week, after 11 years of fighting regional water authority Tampa Bay Water over damage the Simses say was done to their home and property by overpumping at the Cypress Creek well field, the nightmare ended.

Tampa Bay Water agreed in mediation to pay the couple $349,000 to buy the home and cover legal fees. The home is assessed by Pasco County at $114,000.

Sims said Monday that the family was busy packing to move.

Attorneys for both sides said it was the first time they could recall that the water authority paid a private homeowner for damage allegedly done by well field pumping.

Tampa Bay Water attorney Richard Harrison said the agency admits no wrongdoing.

Sims, driven to tears Monday by the thought of the past 11 years of complaints and disappointments and fighting, said she is relieved finally to reach an end.

"It was the fight of my life," Sims said. "I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders."

Sims, 43, and her husband, Benny, 46, bought 2.2 densely wooded acres adjacent to the Cypress Creek well field in 1986. They built what Terry Sims called their dream house in 1988 and moved in.

Soon thereafter, they began noticing changes.

By 1990, more than 300 nearby trees dried up and died. Wetlands evaporated. And in 1993, their well dried up.

In 1994, Tampa Bay Water agreed to drill the well deeper, to help the family find water.

The old well was 33 feet deep. The one the authority drilled went down 251 feet to find a stable water supply.

Then, the Simses said, the house settled. The driveway and walls cracked. Their yard began slipping into low depressions and floors became uneven.

"I have a rocking-commode, if that tells you anything," Terry Sims said.

When Tampa Bay Water wouldn't fix the problem, the Simses sued in 1998.

By the agency's own reckoning, 5-million gallons a day were being pumped from the well field in 1976. That increased to 18-million gallons in 1978 and peaked at 30-million gallons a day from 1979-1993. In 1998, the figure was down to 23.2-million gallons, the agency reported in court documents.

Tampa Bay Water pumps water from Pasco well fields and others to provide water to its 2-million consumers in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the agency reported.

In 1999, in response to the Simses' lawsuit, Tampa Bay Water admitted that "withdrawals of water may have contributed to certain reductions . . . in and around the wetlands," and that "Tampa Bay Water's pumping of groundwater may cause or contribute in varying degrees to a variety of effects in and around the Cypress Creek well field."

Central Pasco water activist Gilliam Clarke said there are many more in the area who have seen damage to their properties thanks to pumping. Sinkholes have become common and cracked driveways and homes are the result as the ground settles, she said.

If Tampa Bay Water doesn't reduce pumping, she said, the agency should be ready to pay for the damage to other homes.

"Once again, the people in the donor counties are being asked to subsidize Pinellas County, and that is a crock," Clarke said Monday. "I think it's only right that Tampa Bay Water face the fact that they are going to have to face the music."

Harrison said the agency does not admit causing any damage to the Simses' home, but that after years of legal battles, it made sense to settle the issue. Any other suits or complaints would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and last week's settlement does not guarantee that the next homeowner automatically should expect a check from the agency, he said.

The agreement still must be approved by the board of Tampa Bay Water at a hearing next week.

Harrison said the agency expects to put the Simses' home up for sale.

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