Polk Board OKs Settlement Talks In Peace River Legal Dispute

The Peace River water war may be settled in time for Christmas.

The Polk County Regional Water Cooperative’s board voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize lawyer Edward delaParte to proceed with settlement negotiations with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority

Board members have scheduled a meeting Dec. 19 to vote on the proposed settlement if negotiations are successful by then.

The dispute involves a pending approval by the Swiftmud Governing Board of a permit submitted by the PRMWSA to double the amount of water it is authorized the withdraw from the river.

The water authority has turned to the river for its future water supply because the aquifer has already been overpumped in that part of the state and is no longer available to supply the amounts it projects to need to handle future growth.

Polk challenged the proposed permit because it is looking to the river to supply water for its future growth, too, arguing if PRMWSA’s permit were approved, that would forestall any plans Polk has to use the river or its tributaries for future water needs.

Gene Heath, PRWC’s projects director, said eliminating the use of the Peace River would limit Polk’s options in developing future alternative water supplies.
Polk’s future project plans also include trying to tap the lower Floridan aquifer, but he acknowledged that approach still hasn’t proved out.

“The stakes are extremely high,” he said , adding the settlement talks will involve looking at the entire river corridor.

The Peace River forms in northern Polk County and flows 105 miles through Polk, Hardee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties before reaching the Gulf of Mexico at Charlotte Harbor.

Although critics have questioned Polk’s proposal to tap the upper reaches of the Peace River, Heath, a former Swiftmud executive, said he believes the project is viable.

The parties in the permit dispute, which had been scheduled for a three-week trial early next year, include Polk and several Polk cities as well as the city of Wauchula, which lies along the river in Hardee County.

Tom Cloud, Wauchula’s city attorney, said after the meeting that one of the concerns that city has is to maintain adequate flow in the river to continue to make the area attractive to recreational paddlers.

Polk parks and recreation staffers are also working on a plan to encourage more recreational use of the portion of the river in Polk County.