More Land In Wildlife Corridor To Be Protected

A 1,285-acre ranch in southern Highlands County will be the latest parcel to gain protection within the section of the Florida Greenways Ecological Network.

The protective deal was announced recently by Conservation Florida, whose staff provided technical assistance to secure the deal with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Formal consideration will occur at the March 13 meeting of the Governor and Cabinet acting as the Trustees for the Internal Improvement Fund.

The proposed purchase price is $4 million.

The property is owned by Lee A. Lightsey and Tracy V. Lightsey.

The property is a former active cattle ranch that is now used primarily as a residence and a recreational hunting venue.

According to the staff report for the meeting, it is part of the 43,051-acre Blue Head Ranch Florida Forever Project that protects regional water and wildlife resources around Fisheating Creek, which flows to Lake Okeechobee.

Before this area was approved for conservation protection, it was along the route of a controversial toll road proposed nearly two decades ago called the Heartland Parkway, whose southern leg through rural lands and crucial wildlife habitat was later abandoned.

The northern portion in the Bartow-Winter Haven area of Polk County is under construction.

Another toll road was proposed more recently along a different route through large swaths of rural land and crucial wildlife habitat in southwest Florida, but was abandoned as a result of protests by environmentalists and property owners and a conclusion that it was unnecessary and financially unsound.

The existence of increased amount of protected conservation lands in this part of Florida—the list of prohibited activities listed in the conservation easement includes the construction of new roads unrelated to restoration work—seems to guarantee that the concern over the encroachment of new roads has lessened.

That makes easements like this a big win for the environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report: Legislators Limit Pollution Damage Claims After Mosaic Drops Cash In Their Election Kittys

Jason Garcia a journalist whose Seeking Rents column regularly reveals the background on legislative hijinks in Tallahassee has scored again.

It seems legislators are poised to approve a bill that will limit the liability of polluting industries in Florida, including the phosphate industry.

The legislation, SB 738 and HB 789, involves revisions to the ironically named Water Quality Assurance Act. The bills would limit claims to the effects on private property and not for things like economic damages or damages to public health. This was tucked into a bill that was mostly devoted to changing rules for side slopes in the design of stormwater ponds. So it goes in Tallahassee.

This is probably just a coincidence, but Garcia also reported that Mosaic, whose pollution discharges over the years has been a topic of discussion among people who claim damages from them, dropped a bunch of cash into legislators’ campaign accounts just before the 2024 session began. However, because of new rules legislators approved that are designed to hide contributions until after the session, the total amount is a little hard to calculate. They seem to be in the six-figure range, Garcia reports.

Mosaic has been successfully sued in the past for economic damages resulting from its spills, so you could logically argue that there seems to be a connection between its campaign largesse and the legislative outcome.

Meanwhile, major environmental groups, including Sierra, have threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its alleged failure to regulate a potential source of environmental pollution related to the acidic and radioactive wastes generated by the Mosaic’s phosphogypsum stacks. These giant waste stacks dot the landscape of southwest Polk County. Their chemical releases have been responsible for serious pollution incidents over recent decades.

The state legislation would not affect any federal action.

 

Polk’s Growth Complicates Water Planning And It’s Not Alone

You have probably read repeated references to Polk’s growth as more people and rooftops spread across its once rural landscape.

Local economic boosters glibly celebrate this trend, but the reality is much more complicated when it comes to providing basic services.

Drinking water often is at or near the top of the list.

More than a decade ago regional water planners documented what some had long feared, which is that the Upper Floridan Aquifer, the source of most of central Florida’s drinking water, had pretty much reached its sustainable limit.

The idea of a development moratorium was never seriously discussed.

Instead, the talk veered to finding alternative water sources from somewhere else.

That brings us to next Tuesday’s meeting of the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board.

The board will hear a discussion of the Polk Regional Water Cooperative’s request to get permission to temporarily increase its water pumping from the Upper Floridan Aquifer while it continues to work on a multiphase plan, which has been in the works for a few years, That plan is to drill wells deeper into the aquifer where there is no fresh water, treat that water with a process called reverse osmosis at a plant near network of wells in southeastern Polk County and pump the treated water via a pipeline system that runs for about 60 miles to reach water plants operated by the county and the cities.

The first such plant is not scheduled to be completed until 2027. More will follow over the next several decades.

This balancing act is allowed under the rules that emerged from the earlier evaluation of the water supply situation, This additional pumping will be allowed to continue for a time as long as there is no evidence the pumping is causing any environmental damage or affecting anyone else’s well.

The time span of this dispensation is hard to estimate. That’s because one of the problems laid out in the Swiftmud staff report is that water demand projections have become somewhat of a moving target.

Earlier in the process planners projected the need for 12.5 million gallons a day by 2045. Now that is the demand number for 2035 because of changes in population growth projections. It does not seem irrational to consider the possibility that the projection could change again.

Although the timing is still a matter of speculation, sea level rise and all of the economic consequences that accompany it could eventually drive more people inland to places like Polk County.

If it’s any comfort, Polk is not alone.

Tuesday’s agenda also includes a recommended emergency action to allow Tampa Bay Water, one of the major utilities serving customers to the west of Polk, to nearly double its allowed pumping from the Alafia River to replenish water in a reservoir whose water supply has been declining as a result of an extended drought.

Tampa Bay Water says it also needs dispensation from the normal rules to feed its growth machine, too.

Imagine that.

 

 

FDOT Closes ‘Buzzard Beach’ Boat Ramp; Cites Safety Concerns

Black Vulture at Buzzard Beach recycles the carcass of a fallen comrade. Now these birds have the site to themselves.

What was for decades the only public access point to launch a boat into Lake Hancock, Polk’s fourth-largest lake, is as dead as its namesake’s main diet.

Florida Department of Transportation officials announced plans earlier this year to close the unpaved, bumpy boat ramp that sometimes you needed four-wheel drive to exit as part of a larger project to improve the section of Winer Lake Road between U.S. 98 and the Polk Parkway. Safety concerns were reportedly behind the decision.

The move had been expected for years as Polk County officials worked to develop a paved boat ramp on Saddle Creek south of Lake Hancock on land the Southwest Florida Water Management District purchased in connection with the construction of a new control structure. That structure allowed the agency to raise the lake’s level to form a reservoir to replenish water in the upper Peace River, which had suffered for years from low water levels and sometimes no water at all in some sections of the river.

Nevertheless, the decision, which was announced in a couple of Facebook posts this week, drew criticism from commercial fishing interests who had been harvesting tilapia and other fish and until relatively recently had made up the bulk of the boat traffic on the lake.

The main problem is that boat trailer parking at the new ramp, which opened in 2020, is limited because it is located on a narrow strip of land between floodplain wetlands along Saddle Creek.

That is going to be a challenge because the parking lot also is used to access the southern trailhead for the Panther Point Trail, which runs along the southern and eastern shore of Lake Hancock. Recreational anglers and other boaters use the ramp, too.

As a practical matter, at some point the County Commission may be forced to come up with a plan to expand public access. The problem is that there are hardly any suitable locations to build a boat ramp to access the lake because the bulk of the lake’s shoreline consists of either wetlands or mined land containing a mosaic of deep pits and narrow berms.

Meanwhile, a planned recreational trail, which is still in the study phase, has been proposed to connect the Marshall Hampton Reserve and Circle B Bar Reserve. Its route would cross the area where the now-closed boat ramp was located.

It is part of a regional plan to create a trail network along the Peace River in Polk County and perhaps farther south.

 

 

Wildlife Survey Projects Looking For Volunteers

There are two major efforts coming up to encourage folks to get outdoors and submit data about the creatures that inhabit our environment.

The first one is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs Feb 16- 19 at a backyard, park, roadside or anywhere else you might want to look for birds anywhere in the world.

It is being coordinated by Audubon and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

It is designed to gather data on the midwinter distribution of birds in North America and elsewhere on the planet.

You can count anywhere, but you have to have a free eBird account to enter your data.

Later this year will be the City Challenge, which is being coordinated locally by The Nature Conservancy staff at Tiger Creek Preserve.

This is the second annual effort that seeks participants from anywhere in Polk County to submit observations via iNaturalist on plants and animals you observe between April 26 and 29.

For more information, contact Ginny Hamilton at v.a.hamilton@tnc.org

 

Lake Alfred’s Push For More Development In The Green Swamp Draws Questions

Last July the Lake Alfred City Commission agreed to annex a number of tracts containing more than 6000 acres—including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area—to reach land that could be the site of a future industrial park at the County Road 557/Old Grade Road interchange of Interstate 4 in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.

(The annexed land is the property shaded in orange in the accompanying map.)

The action danced on the edge of the minimum criteria in state law for municipal annexations since it involved a lot of land that was unpopulated and not likely to be part of any future urban development. The law said it’s okay if only some of the land fits that description, so there we are.

The move has since drawn backlash from property owners along Old Grade Road who fear more urban incursion into rural areas after receiving mailers from a developer masquerading as the city encouraging them to annex and offering to purchase their property. However, as a practical matter northward annexation seems unlikely because old land-sales subdivisions lie between the annexed property and the rural residences farther north.

Also, an official at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Public Land Administration, who signed off on the voluntary annexation of Hilochee, appeared unaware of the city’s end game and told an inquiring resident that FDEP officials may have something to say if industrial zoning is proposed across the street from one Hilochee’s entrances.

If there is an industrial zoning proposal, it would also require review by what’s left of state growth management oversight in the Florida Department of Commerce.

The fact that an action of this magnitude flew under the public’s radar for so long is another example of decline in local media coverage as Polk County is increasingly becoming a news desert when it comes to covering events in many of the county’s 17 municipalities.

As anyone who has driven north of downtown Lake Alfred on CR 557 knows, the area is turning into a sea of rooftops. The sign once erected along the highway designating the boundary of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern has long ago disappeared to make way for a subdivision entrance.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Green Swamp, it was declared an Area of Critical State Concern half a century ago because of its importance as a recharge area for the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of drinking water in central Florida. It also contains the headwaters of the Peace, Hillsborough, Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha rivers and is a hub in a statewide network of wildlife corridors.

One of the important battles Sierra and other conservation groups have waged is to prevent encroachment into the core of this critical area that is important to the region’s hydrology and wildlife.

The development of an industrial park, which would lie far outside any plans by the city to extend water and sewer service, would mean industrial onsite waste disposal, which is not something the aquifer in that part of state needs.

In approving the annexation, city officials said they will discuss what kind of land-use classifications should apply to the annexed properties sometime in the future.

Since there is nothing anyone can do about the annexation, the land-use hearings may be the best place to speak up.

This is an issue in which everyone needs to stay tuned.

Some Thoughts On The Ongoing Split Oak Forest Toll Road Invasion Discussion

One of the key conservation discussions in central Florida over the past few years has involved the proposal to allow a toll road to be built through a corner of a state conservation site called Split Oak Forest in Orange and Osceola counties north of us to accommodate more urban sprawl in the greater Orlando-Kissimmee megaplex. Osceola County officials are pushing for the idea. Orange County officials (and voters) are resisting it.

That discussion continued today in a feature story published in the Orlando Sentinel that posited that allowing the toll road to take a piece of the preserve in exchange for awarding conservation land on the other side of the cut and millions of dollars offered by development interests to manage the new fragment would make everything fine and preserve an important wildlife corridor for Florida panthers and other wildlife.

Unfortunately for that argument, the story included a map that illustrated that these hard-fought conservation lands were in fact the last green islands in a sea of current and proposed development in the surrounding private property that dominates the area.

In the background is a discussion that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees the management of Split Oak, over whether to approve the road project proposed by the Central Florida Expressway Authority, which has already constructed a network of toll roads that have forever changed the character of what were once wild lands in this part of Florida.

Given the politics in Tallahassee, cynics might conclude that the fix is already in.

But there is an important principle involved in this discussion.

Several years ago, former Gov. Rick Scott floated an idea to surplus a bunch of state conservation lands, including Hilochee Wildlife Management Area in the Green Swam Area of Critical State Concern.

The idea fortunately did not go anywhere.

This proposal is more troubling. That is because it would amount to essentially surplusing state conservation land to accommodate commercial development interests, which would set a troubling precedent.

As was pointed out in this space earlier, the idea has local implications when you consider the long-game priorities of the road-building and development lobbies.

There is a project on the so-called transportation “needs” project list in Polk County that involves realigning Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to create a new truck freight route through a state wildlife corridor with the goal of connecting U.S 27 and U.S. 98 via a shortcut that would run through the two state conservation lands–Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Hampton Tract and Collt Creek State Park—to complete the link.

As they say, if you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask for a glass of milk.

Be careful what you agree to give away,