Land protection, waterway restoration and zoning disputes were among the highlights of environmental news during the past year in the area.
As the year began, Polk County officials began discussing plans to study replacing septic tanks with centralized sewer treatment in the headwaters of the Everglades in eastern Polk. The study results are due anytime now, or at least that was the plan.
In another Everglades headwaters issue, work continued in Congress to give sections of the restored Kissimmee River the Wild and Scenic River designation.
In March, a National Rifle Association-sponsored measure to put hunters’ rights into the Florida Constitution emerged, generating a lot of discussion about its need—hunting rights are already covered in state law—and its potential to cause some mischief and legal entanglements on issues ranging from private property rights to commercial net bans.
In May, regional water managers concluded the Peace Creek may not be the bountiful future alternative water supply that was once envisioned by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative. Meanwhile, Polk officials are poised to spend millions of dollars to restore some of the wetlands that were drained when the Peace Creek Drainage Canal was dug a century ago.
June saw a victory for local land-protection advocates when the County Commission voted to levy the entire amount of property tax approved by voters in 2022 to fund environmental land purchases. Polk officials soon thereafter sought nominations from property owners interested in participating in the program.
In July Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that authorized the study of the feasibility of using a slightly radioactive fertilizer production byproduct called phosphosgypsum to build roads. The study is supposed to be concluded by April 1 (no fooling).
In September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft report for land preservation goals for a vast section of southwest Florida and Polk County approved the purchase of a large tract on the east side of Lake Marion at the Everglades headwaters to provide better access to the lake and to protect scrub habitat.
Also in September the Polk County Commission approved a plan to develop a ranch in eastern Polk County that could potentially affect an existing wildlife corridor between a string of public and private conservation lands in the Everglades headwaters. However the property owner is also pursuing the sale of the property’s development rights to either the state or Polk County and establishing a permanent conservation easement. However, the Polk County School District is considering a site for a new high school at another nearby ranch that would include athletic fields and their nights lights that could diminish dark sky conditions om the area.
In October, Polk utility officials announced plans to study the feasibility of treating sewage from a plant in the northwest section of the county to drinking water standards. There are also plans to create a pipeline to pump treated sewage from less populated to more populated areas of the county to provide more water for lawn irrigation.
Also, a long-running controversy over a soil treatment plant call BS Ranch and Farms on the outskirts of Lakeland near Saddle Creek came to a head when state environmental officials announced they were no longer inclined to grant the facility an operating permit, forcing it to quit accepting waste from septic tank companies. This led to a renewed discussion of establishing an environmentally sustainable facility to handle these wastes.
At years end, Polk officials agreed to support the continuing study of the feasibility of extending the SunRail commuter rail line into Polk County, though it was clear this will be a challenge and any extension, if it occurs, is likely years away.
Meanwhile, the Polk County Commission voted down a request to put a sales tax increase on the 2024 ballot to pay for road improvements. The environmental upside of that vote is that it could prevent the construction of road projects that would encourage more urban sprawl in eastern Polk and send more truck traffic into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern on a road that already bisects key wildlife corridors.
There was good news on the wildlife corridor front in 2023. State officials completed the construction of a wildlife underpass beneath Interstate 4 north of Lake Alfred in Hilochee Wildlife Management Area and are planning a wildlife overpass in the area north of Tenoroc Public Use Area near Lakeland. The construction of these wildlife crossings, which will reconnect links to the Green Swamp that were severed by the construction of I-4 in the 1960s came about in part as the result of lobbying by Ancient Islands Sierra Club for the past few decades.
Happy New Year.