Below Normal River Flow Shows Water Planning’s Limits

The rainy season is over and the flow of the Peace River in Polk County is somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of the long-term average, according the latest data.

This is supposed to be a La Nina winter, which means higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall in coming months during what is usually the dry season in this part of Florida anyway.

Meanwhile, there is some tentative planning to build a reservoir somewhere around Fort Meade as part of the Polk County Water Cooperative’s plans for developing so-called alternative water supplies. That reservoir would involve seeking a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to divert some of the river’s high flow and store it for future use.

How much would be available would depend on river conditions and the amount already reserved for Peace River Manasota Water Supply Authority and for the needs of the river and the Charlotte Harbor Estuary downstream. Right now there isn’t enough flow at the Bartow gauge to make launching a canoe or kayak advisable in this section of the river.

Rainfall is the only source of water in the river since overpumping decades ago eliminated base artesian flow. This year there was not enough rain to sustain anything close to average flow. How often this will occur is, of course, unknown. However, the vagaries of rainfall raises questions about how sustainable this approach will prove to be.

This project, along with the plans that already farther along to tap deeper sections of the aquifer and to treat it with reverse osmosis to remove contaminants, deserves to be monitored by the public because they will bear the expense.


Sierra Objections Help To Derail Polk Zoning Hearing Changes

Objections raised by the Ancient Islands Group of Florida Sierra led to changes and the eventual defeat of a proposal to turn some local land-use and zoning cases over to a hearing officer instead of the Polk County Planning Commission.

Sierra’s objections, presented by Chair Tom Palmer, involved turning a legislative function into an administrative one, erecting unnecessary barriers to appeals and removing discretion on how any denials of the hearing officer’s recommendation would be handled by the County Commission.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, who was on the losing side of the 3-2 vote, argued this was something that would make the hearing decisions more predictable and consistent for he and his colleagues in the development community. He argued that this is simply a maturation of the growth management process that dates from the 1985 growth management law.

Sierra argued that heading in this direction may create a system in which public hearings may simply be a formality.

In response to Sierra’s comments at the first public hearing, county staff revised the section on appeals to make it more appellant-friendly.

Nevertheless, the commission’s majority remained uncomfortable with the overall concept.

Additionally, since there is no longer any strong state oversight over local land-use decisions—state officials can raise objection, but no longer have any enforcement power—further erosion of local planning oversight reduces public confidence in the system.

That’s because there is already a public perception that the way the regulations are written, applied and interpreted already gives an unfair advantage to the development community. Stripping some decision-making from the Planning Commission would reinforce that perception.

Voting to reject the proposal were Commissioners Bill Braswell, Martha Santiago and Rick Wislon. Voting to approve the change were Lindsey and Commissioner Neil Combee.




Our Campaign To Protect More of Florida’s Wild Lands Stymied by Politics, Not Finances; The Money Is There!

One of the most disturbing aspects of environmental politics in Tallahassee is the image of environmental advocates appealing to legislators hat in hand for money to protect more wild lands before the bulldozers advance to make way for more rooftops and pollution and habitat fragmentation.

What’s really disturbing is that some environmental organizations –Florida Sierra is not among them–celebrate the fact that the land protection programs received only a pittance of the amount to which they’re entitled.

When I say pittance, I’m talking about the difference between the $100 million legislators grudgingly appropriated and the $1.1 BILLIION that’s technically available. It’s a difference between dimes and dollars.

I’m talking about the constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly approved nearly a decade ago to set aside a portion of the documentary taxes collected in connection with real estate transactions, which often involve new development.

The Florida Leglslature’s parsimonious approach to land conservation deserves condemnation, not praise.

This is Florida and as many of you know, legislators and the rest of the so-called leadership in Tallahassee has refused to spend the money. The dispute remains in court.

This continues to be an outrage, but it is typical of what has happened time and again when the voters approved a measure the GOP-controlled Legislature didn’t like. They predictably set in motion any action they could think of to delay or undermine its implementation.

$1.1 billion sounds like a lot of money and it is, but it reflects the other reality of purchasing land or development rights that protect working lands and keep them in private ownership in Florida these days.

That is –as the headlines about housing prices indicate–that real estate is lot more expensive now than it was a couple of decades ago before the Florida Forever program was halted to deal with the economic repercussions of the collapse of the Ponzi-like real estate speculation market.

Additionally, because the Florida Forever program was sidelined for many years, there’s a lot of catching up to do to acquire lands that have already been reviewed and prioritized.

There will be a lot going on in Tallahassee when the Legislature convenes in January as there always is, but restoring land conservation funding cannot wait any longer.

Contact your legislators and tell them it is past time to pay up.


Solar Farms Regs To Change

Legislative-mandated changes in how local officials can regulate the location of solar farms is coming before the Polk County Planning Commission on Wednesday.

The change will allow these facilities to be located in rural lands with only administrative review unless they fall under the Power Plant Siting Act, which so far the applicants have sized their proposals to avoid.

The only disputes have involved plans to locate a solar farm in the middle of the historic Chicora community in southwest Polk because of concerns over its compatibility with surrounding homesteads and a proposal to locate a solar farm in the northern sections of Lake Alfred because city officials wanted to develop the land for houses instead even though solar farms will require fewer city services than new subdivisions.

The solar farms will still, so far, require a willing seller rather than condemnation. The effort locally has been led by Tampa Electric, which is attempting to increase its non-fossil fuel footprint in its service area.