Peace River Mediation Reported At Impasse

Representatives from Polk Count Regional Water Cooperative, the Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority and the Southwest Florida Water Management District met in a private mediation meeting Oct. 8 to try to work out a permitting dispute over conflicting claims to withdraw more water from the Peace River.

According to Brian Armstrong, Swiftmud’s executive director, the mediation did not produce a compromise and litigation is expected to proceed.

The clash is over conflicting plans by both regional utilities to use water from the Peace River or its tributaries to meet future projected water supply needs.

PRMWSA uses the Peace River for most of its water supply needs because developing wellfields in that coastal area and removing fresh water from that part of the aquifer would only worsen saltwater intrusion . PRMWSA has applied for a permit to double its withdrawals from the river.

PRWC authorities, who claim they didn’t know about PRMWSA’s permit until it was on the verge of being approved by Swiftmud’s Governing Board, contend granting that permit will hinder Polk’s ability to develop alternative water supplies along the Peace Creek. Polk’s plan involves diverting some of the creek’s flow into retention areas that will allow the water to recharge the aquifer. That recharge is proposed to allow Winter Haven, a member of the cooperative, to increase its pumping from existing water supply wells in the Upper Floridan Aquifer.

All of the permits involving river withdrawals are pending technical review by Swiftmud staff.

Sid Flannery, a retired Swiftmud scientist, has submitted a plan proposing to tap Shell Creek, a tributary in the lower Peace River that is not used for water supply, and pipe that water to Polk County rather than allowing withdrawals in the stressed upper Peace River. Flannery, one of the scientists involved in determining how much water the PRMWSA could sustainably withdraw from the Peace River, said the flow in the Upper Peace River has been affected by a combination of overpumping of the aquifer and disruption of surface flow to the river, resulting the river’s not meeting its state-mandated minimum flow at times.

As a result, he said using the upper Peace River for future water supplies is a bad idea that is environmentally and hydrologically unsustainable.

Thursday Armstrong issued a statement reflecting Swiftmud’s take on the current permitting dispute. Other parties will likely weigh in as this case proceeds.

Armstrong’s statement follows.

We tried everything we could to find a peaceful resolution, but the Polk Regional Water Cooperative (PRWC) seems intent on fighting a legal battle.

The PRWC filed a legal challenge to a proposed permit that would allow the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority (PRMRWSA) to withdraw additional quantities from the Peace River. An administrative law judge ordered all parties to meet in an effort to amicably resolve the litigation. The parties agreed to engage in mediation which was held on Oct. 8th but were unable to reach an agreement. Now the focus of the parties turns to fighting a legal war rather than working together to develop water supplies.

That’s a missed opportunity and a shame. We have tried to focus on the real issue, developing water supplies, rather than wasting money on legal bills.

At the PRWC’s Sept. 19th meeting, I asked the members to put their litigation on hold to give the parties time to explore a new water supply possibility for Polk County. We’ve been working with Hillsborough County on a regional water supply solution that could benefit all parties, including the PRWC. This is a regional effort that has great potential, but it requires everyone to come to the table. We need time to discuss options and work out details, but collaborative discussion is difficult while in a hail of legal claims and counterclaims.

And if the project didn’t prove feasible, the PRWC could have simply resumed its litigation.

On Oct. 3, members of the PRMRWSA voted unanimously to put litigation on hold to work out a solution. That same day, we held an informational meeting to discuss additional details about the project being considered. Hillsborough County, the city of Tampa, Tampa Bay Water and PRMRWSA representatives, among others, attended the meeting. Unfortunately, the only PRWC members to attend were two representatives from Davenport.

Prior to the mediation session, we sent a proposed stipulation for all parties to consider that would put all litigation on hold for 12 months to allow for the further development of the water supply project with Hillsborough County. The PRWC has not agreed to this proposal.

Despite the impasse at mediation, the District remains open to substantive discussions toward resolution. However, based on our experiences to this point, that doesn’t appear to be the path being taken by the PRWC. Without the litigation on hold, we have no choice but to focus all our resources on the legal permit challenge rather than the potential water supply project. We’ve been down this road before and we know how it ends – millions of dollars wasted in payments to attorneys without generating any new water supplies.

Now we all have to be prepared to open our checkbooks again and again. The only people who profit from water wars are people who are paid to fight water wars. And that’s not in the best interests of the taxpayers or ratepayers.

Brian J. Armstrong, P.G.

Executive Director

Southwest Florida Water Management District