Peace River Water Permit Request Has Revived Old, New Concerns

The Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority has been pumping water from the Peace River for decades to supply the growth demands of Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties, but their latest request to essentially monopolizes all of the river’s potential sustainable withdrawal allowance has caused a swift and united reaction upstream.

First a little background.

Historically, Polk and other inland areas along the Peace River have not been interested in using the river for anything other than recreation and as a convenient place to dump their treated sewage.

That began to change a decade ago when it became clear that the Floridan aquifer, the traditional source for drinking water, irrigation water, mining process water and power plant cooling water was about tapped out. This was something a few far-sighted people had predicted would happen as long ago as the 1940s—even before Kissengen Spring south of Bartow quit flowing in 1950 because of aquifer overpumping—but now the monitoring and data are good enough to prove there’s a problem and people started listening.

You have to understand that it wasn’t until 1975 that anyone actually needed a permit to pump millions of gallons of water a day from the ground as the water management districts transitioned from their original role as flood control districts intent on ditching and draining the landscape to regional water managers who began to realize the resource wasn’t unlimited or a nuisance and began serious planning.

In the meantime, much of Polk was declared as something called the Southern Water Use Caution Area, which signaled the end to unlimited withdrawals. Polk and some agriculture interests challenged the restrictions in what turned into the longest administrative hearing in Florida history. In the end, the water managers’ restrictions were sustained. The documentation that the problem was more widespread through studies initiated under the Central Florida Water Initiative added to the concerns.

Water fuels the growth machine. Politicians throughout Polk are nothing if not growth-oriented. The idea that development permits would ever be denied because there’s simply no more water available is unthinkable in their universe.

The new water reality set the stage for the creation of the Polk Regional Water Cooperative to get all local governments together to figure out how to find more water and how to pay for it.

The alternatives on the table to deal with the near-term shortage through 2035 have involved improved conservation, funding of research to figure out whether using the deeper, saltier portions of the Floridan aquifer will provide a sustainable source of water and establishing some reservoirs along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal to set up some recharge credits that might allow more pumping from the fresh water aquifer.

The question in the back of many water planners’ minds has been where to get water beyond 2035.

One plan involved tapping the Peace River near Fort Meade and building a reservoir to store it and setting up a pipeline to get it to other users. Polk County recently formally applied for a permit for the Fort Meade withdrawal even though it may not need it for years to come.

That’s where the PRMWSA permit comes in.

The authority applied for a permit to add an additional withdrawal point in DeSoto County to bring its total withdrawal to 258 million gallons a day. Its current permit, issued in 2011, allows 120 mgd in withdrawal from its existing withdrawal pipe, which is also in DeSoto County.

As it turns out 258 mgd is pretty much equal to the cap the Southwest Florida Water Management District has set for the maximum public supply withdrawal from the entire 105-mile length of the river.

Technically the cap is 400 cubic feet per second. A cubic foot per second is 646,320 gallons per day.

The water authority applied for the permit last fall, but no one noticed until recently because, opponents allege, the legal advertisements on the permit were not published in media outlets upstream and the language in the advertisement that was published didn’t clearly lay out what the request involved.

That and some other alleged technical and administrative shortcomings in the permit request are the main points in the challenges to the authority’s permit request that have been filed by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative, Polk County and the cities of Bartow, Fort Meade, Lakeland, Winter Haven and Wauchula.

Polk officials further argue that since about a quarter of the river’s drainage basin lies in Polk County, fairness requires that the county deserves a piece of the river’s flow.

Whether this is a real “water war” in the way events played out in the Tampa Bay area decades ago is something that will be clearer as events unfold.

What it does highlight is a tension that has existed since those times between coastal and inland counties over the prospect that somehow the coastal utilities would eventually reach inland for new water supplies at the inland counties’ expense. This played out in the dispute over the proposed development of the Cone Ranch wellfield in eastern Hillsborough County a few years ago. That wellfield was never built.

The concern with Cone Ranch and PRMWSA’s permit request is that although neither withdrawal lies within Polk County, the withdrawals could pre-empt so much of the resource that future permit requests in Polk County would be denied to prevent further harm to the resource.

Meanwhile, the river and the organisms that inhabit it need water, too. So does the Charlotte Harbor estuary.

The next several years are going to require vigilance to make any decisions on water use look at everyone’s long-term benefits and not just the benefits of a few.