Polk, Swiftmud Officials Clash On Tampa Bay Water Proposal Talks

There was supposed to be some kind of informational meeting held today to give Polk Regional Water Cooperative board members a chance to ask questions about the details of a plan by Hillsborough officials to offer an alternative to tapping the Upper Peace and Alafia rivers for future water supplies.

But local city managers were told in an email from Assistant County Manager Ryan Taylor they should advise commissioners not respond to the offer and instead to confine their discussions to confidential mediation sessions, the next one of which is scheduled next week in Tampa.

That email drew a quick response from Brian Armstrong, Swiftmud’s executive director, who argued the meeting he proposed was simply to allow Polk officials to learn more and that the settlement discussions would not be part of the meeting discussion. He accused Polk’s lawyers of essentially going behind Swiftmud’s back to scuttle the meeting.

What the Hillsborough County proposal involves is a plan, which is still in the pilot stage, to pump threated sewage underground near the coast to create a freshwater bubble that will halt the inland progress of saltwater intrusion.

If that plan works, it would allow freshwater withdrawals from wells farther inland in Hillsborough County and some of the water pumped from those wells could be piped to Polk County to solve its projected water supply shortage.

That all depends on the project’s success—PRWC lawyer Ed de la Parte disputes Hillsborough’s claim that it generates enough wastewater to make it work—and whether Polk and Hillsborough officials can reach an agreement on the details of the water transfer.

It’s hard to know from the outside what ‘s behind the strategy of advising Polk officials to boycott the informational meeting.

It could be that there’s a feeling Polk could get a better deal if it doesn’t jump at the first offer that’s put on the table or it could be that it’s simply more lucrative for the professionals involved to string out this drama out as long as possible.

If there isn’t a timely resolution to the dispute, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, whichever candidate succeeds Gov. Rick Scott does about this dispute in the governor’s role in overseeing water management districts and state water policy.


Skeptical Polk Commissioners OK BS Ranch Settlement Pact

Polk County commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve the settlement agreement with BS Ranch & Farm, a soil composting facility on the outskirts of Lakeland, but two said they were skeptical the settlement would really settle anything.

On paper the agreement is supposed to end eight pending court or code violation cases involving BS Ranch’s performance since it was granted an after-the-fact zoning permit in 2016 and disputes by BS Ranch’s owners that Polk County’s subsequent action to renege on part of the permit authorization damaged their business prospects.

Although Commissioner George Lindsey praised the team that put together the settlement agreement to “clean up the mess we made,” he said he had little confidence of the outcome.

Commission Chairman Todd Dantzler said if commissioners knew then what they know now, they never would have approved the project in the first place.

County Attorney Michael Craig said the main goal of the settlement was to get BS Ranch to comply with Polk County’s regulations, which include receiving proper staff review of their plans and developing an odor control procedure that has been the heart of the problems associated with the operation.

Reading through the conditions in the settlement, it seems obvious that these are the kinds of conditions that probably should have been put into force from the onset, regardless of the assurances commissioners and county staffers received during tours of the facility, which began operating without any zoning or environmental permits.

I’ve said this before, but it is worth restating that the fact that the facility opened without first getting proper permits would have sent up red flags anywhere but Polk County.

Polk County has had a history of permissive development review and writing staff reports that are intended to rationalize sometimes questionable recommendations for approval. The initial staff report, gushing with admiration for the operation, typifies this.

In fact it was telling during one of the hearings that one of the lawyers pointed out correctly that the data and analysis in the staff report that recommended revoking the earlier report was not substantially different from the staff report recommending approval.

Adding to this debacle was a Florida Department of Environmental Regulation under the Scott administration in Tallahassee that is reluctant to be anything but accommodating for companies that thumb their noses at the regulations unless there is intense public pressure to do otherwise.

By the way, the problems shouldn’t have surprised anyone who was diligent enough to look around. There was a history of problems at other facilities in Florida and around the country.

Some of the problems are the direct result of the facility’s proximity to residential areas and other businesses, not the idea of composting itself.

Composting is simply another type of recycling that has been used for centuries to return nutrients to the soil.

It just requires some adult supervision and better siting criteria.

BS Ranch, Polk Settlement Vote Scheduled

Polk commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a settlement designed to end the ongoing legal dispute with BS Ranch, a Lakeland composting facility that has been the subject of regular odor complaints and has a troubled regulatory history.

The settlement requires BS Ranch to submit a new permit application and the County Commissioner to consider it by the end of this year.

The details of the new permit deal with protection of wetlands and water quality on the site, reduction of odors and sanctions if the odor complaints occur too frequently, which the settlement agreement defines as eight legitimate complaints based on three separate events within any three-month period.

In addition, BS will be required to increase its monitoring and modify how and when it handles certain materials.

The case began as an effort to push an after-the-fact permit for the facility under the guise of promoting economic development.

Other Florida counties have been less accommodating, some going as far as requiring the operations to be located indoors to prevent odor problems.

But it became clear after commissioners revised its development regulations just to accommodate BS Ranch that the public relations tour commissioners and county staffers received didn’t reflect the true situation as odor complaints arose from area residents and business owners located in the same industrial park.

Commissioners responded by trying to walk back the earlier approval, which led to a series of legal disputes that the settlement is intended to end.

Meanwhile, the details of the conditions under which BS Ranch will be required to operate remain to be worked out.

The first public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 7 before the Planning Commission and Dec. 4 before the County Commission.



Household Hazardous Waste Dropoff Faces Drastic Cuts

If you want to responsibly to get rid of household hazardous waste, you’re going to have to do a better job of planning.

Polk County announced it is cutting back the hours of the dropoff at the North Central Landfill to Fridays and Saturdays.

It was formerly allowed during most weekdays and Saturday.

The purpose of the dropoff facility to encourage residents to dispose of their used oil, pesticides, solvents and other hazardous chemicals here rather than putting them in your garbage cart or dumping them in your yard or along a roadside and contaminate drinking water.

Instead, there will be dropoff days scheduled around the county in hopes of encouraging responsible disposal.

The press release didn’t reveal what the reasons for the change, but the back story is that during a recent work session commissioners discussed the alleged need to reduce traffic to the dropoff facility to reduce conflicts with a planned book-in facility planned by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office that will be developed next to the animal control facility near the landfill entrance.

The dropoff schedule and locations, all of them from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. are: Oct. 27, Barow High School; Dec. 1, Chain ‘O Lakes Complex, Winter Haven; Feb. 9, Lakeland Solid Waste Department; March 2, Haines City Public Works Complex.



Some Thoughts On Proposed Water War Truce Offer

The Battle of Peace River may not happen after all.

Last week Brian Armstrong, Southwest Florida Water Management District’s executive director, attended the Polk Regional Water Cooperative meeting and proposed a way that Polk County officials may get the water they think they need to fuel future growth without going through an expensive, protracted legal fight with the Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority over water allocations in the Peace River.

I finally got a copy of his presentation and did some additional research.

This is what I know so far.

The reason Polk officials are looking for alternative water sources is because the traditional water sources have been pretty well tapped out. This is the result of a combination past bad practices and increased demand caused by population growth. Polk’s population is projected to reach 1 million in about 20 years. Twenty years ago it was about half a million.

That water shortage led to the creation of something called the Southern Water Use Caution Area, an area that covers a good chunk of Polk County and some neighboring counties where groundwater withdrawals are limited to prevent further stress on the aquifer and to prevent the further inland march of saltwater intrusion.

The proposed solution to the water supply shortage is something called the South Hillsborough Aquifer Recharge Program.

This program involves pumping treated sewage underground in a network of wells drilled in coastal areas to form a freshwater bubble to contain the advance of saltwater.

That, the program’s designers claim, will allow more freshwater withdrawals inland than area allowed now under the SWUCA restrictions.

It will also reduce nutrient-laden discharges into Tampa Bay from the sewer plants, which advances decades of work to restore Tampa Bay.

Armstrong proposes that Polk and Hillsborough officials work out a deal to share this water rather than trying to tap a highly undependable water source such as the upper reaches of the Peace or Alafia rivers.

However, the program is still in the early stages of development, so there’s no water to share ye. Polk utility officials are also exploring using unexplored sections of the Lower Floridan Aquifer for future water supplies and don’t project needing more water until farther in the future.

Meanwhile, one of the less-discussed effects of sea-level rise in Florida is its effect of increasing the rate of salt water intrusion over time. The higher the ocean’s surface, the more water pressure there will be bearing down on the lighter weight freshwater aquifer.

One Swiftmud study predicted saltwater intrusion may begin affecting wells as far inland as the outskirts of Brandon within coming decades.

That leads to the question of how large a network of freshwater recharge wells will be necessary to maintain the barrier against salt water intrusion.

Polk officials said they are willing to talk, but it is still unclear how much water might be available from this source and how much it would cost water customers.

Watch for more details.



Home Solar Co-operative Kickoff Wednesday

Wednesday morning in Bartow solar power advocates from all over the state will attend a meeting to formally launch the Polk County Solar Cooperative.

The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. in the County Commission chambers.

The meeting is the culmination of several months of planning and grassroots groundwork that included an introductory meeting in Lakeland in February.

The idea behind the effort is to promote more renewable energy and to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

The idea is to reduce the costs of home solar installations by banding together to obtain bulk discounts negotiated by whichever solar contractor the cooperative agrees to hire.

These installations are in addition to a number of solar farms that are either operating, under construction or planned in Polk County, primarily by Tampa Electric.

Polk’s effort follows similar efforts in other Florida counties.

Ancient Islands Sierra Club is joining with representatives from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Solar United Neighbors of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Polk County, the Polk County Commission, Bartow and Hillsborough County in the presentation.

The meeting is open to the public.


Polk Officials Gearing Up To Show Residents What Not To Try To Recycle

Two years after a new recycling system began in unincorporated Polk County, it is clear the word didn’t get out to recycling customers.

City officials are facing some of the same problems and one of them, Lakeland, has already hired a company to improve the situation.

Polk officials are in the process of hiring a public relations firm to do the same.

There is no word yet on when residents can expect to learn the details of these new campaigns, but there is supposedly some effort to coordinate the efforts to reduce public confusion on this issue.

There is already some confusion caused by the fact that there is no uniformity across Polk County about what residents are encouraged to put in their recycling carts.

Some allow magazines and phone books, some don’t. Some allow aluminum foil. Some don’t. Some allow plastic garden pots. Some do not. The same goes for glass and plastic bottles. You get the idea.

The problem these campaigns will attempt to address is excessive contamination in recycling containers caused by residents putting in stuff that has never been acceptable such as disposable diapers, polystyrene and pizza boxes in the bins.

This contamination has two effects.

One is that really contaminated loads are simply sent directly to the landfill, which thwarts recycling efforts by residents.

The other is that the cost of having sort contaminants out of the recycling line makes recycling less cost-effective.

Local governments don’t make money from recycling, but recycling does reduce the need to expand landfills, which are very expensive to design, permit and construct.

This is not simply a Polk County problem, it is a nationwide problem.

The contamination problem has been aggravated by changing markets led by China, which no longer accepts as much of the world’s plastic waste as it once did.

Add to that the drop in oil prices has made it less economic feasible to recycle plastic (you did know it was a petroleum product, didn’t you?).

The situation is even forcing many local governments to rethink how or even whether they will continue curbside recycling.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to help.

Make sure you understand what materials are acceptable to recycle in your community so that you are not part of the problem.

Buy less throwaway products in the first place. Take reusable bags to the store. Use a refillable water bottle.

Support legislation that puts some of the responsibility for recycling waste on the people who create the products that enter the waste stream in the first place: the manufacturers. This is already done in Europe.