Permit Restrictions, Mediation Loom Over Polk Water Cooperative

This week members of the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative learned that the current permits city and county utilities have now will be reduced within the next couple of years and the chance of ever getting a permit to tap the Upper Floridan Aquifer any further will be slim to none.

The news was not unexpected because regional water managers have been talking about restrictions for some time after determining the aquifer has been pretty much tapped out.

However, board members didn’t seen concrete figures until documenting the reductions until recently.

That means any additional water demand to meet future growth will have to come from somewhere else.

In other words, the end of the relatively unlimited development water pipeline is within sight.

When exactly this will take effect is hard to answer.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the water management districts, is in the process of adopting new administrative rules that will establish the new restrictions. They are scheduled to be adopted in September.

However, it is likely the rule will face legal challenges that may take time to resolve.

Some parts of the presentation to the PRWC board Wednesday afternoon sent mixed messages about water scarcity.

One of the centerpieces of the new rules is to reduce per-capita water consumption to 100 gallons per day.

However, if a utility—or more precisely its customers—don’t take that conservation goal seriously, not to worry.

All utilities have to do is to submit a plan to correct the problem, but they have 20 years to fix it.

Water officials on this week’s video presentation acknowledged it may take time to implement effective e conservation measures.

However, there’s a big difference between not being able to do something overnight and being given a generation to fix it.

You have to wonder what the cumulative impact of the water wasted all of those years will amount to.

The only real hammer is that these utilities’ water withdrawal permits will be capped at less than they are now and if people waste water, there will be no water available for new customers, so that could take care of itself if the development lobby has any say in the process.

The other question is how the exemptions built into the rules will be applied. Is it proper to transfer the water used for a now-abandoned citrus grove, for instance, to a public utility to continue business as usual or should the water allocation be canceled to allow the aquifer to recover?

Most of the focus on the future has been devoted to looking at alternative water sources. The primary projects involve tapping the deeper, poorer-quality section of the aquifer, treating it and pumping it to utility customers at a higher price than what they’re paying now.

However, there is some dissent among cooperative members about who should pay for the projects. One project is in eastern Polk County. The other project is in western Polk. The dispute revives the perennial issue of the geographic divide between the two sections of this sprawling county.

Board members are scheduled to meet later this month to discuss hiring a mediator. That will delay a decision, which has raised the question of whether the water board members can resolve their differences in time for the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board to consider continued funding for the co-operative’s alternative water projects.

In the past some Swiftmud board members have had little patience with Polk officials when they thought they were not cooperating with the agency. This occurred last in 2008 over the Peace River permit dispute.

The funding for Polk’s alternative water projects is contained in an agreement between Swiftmud and the PRWC, but if Polk wanted to renegotiate the agreement to allow the board to work out its differences, it’s unclear what Swiftmud’s reaction would be.

As PRWC board members were reminded, the makeup of the Swiftmud board changes and that may change their decision-making. It is worth noting that Gov. Ron DeSantis has not filled a long-standing vacancy for one of the two Polk County seats on the 13-member board, which at the moment has only nine members.