Officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District are asking questions about just how regional and how cooperative the Polk Regional Water Cooperative really is.
The questions are apt because the agency has a lot of skin in the game. It has agreed to contribute $65 million and counting toward Polk County’s efforts to come up with a unified plan to develop so-called alternate water resources to meet projected public supply demand so the taps keep running and the toilets keep flushing as once-rural Polk’s population nears 1 million residents.
The latest discussion came up during Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting when Swiftmud General Counsel Christopher Tumminia presented staff concerns about whether the cooperative is functioning as it should and whether that funding should continue.
Some of the specific issues were whether the cooperative owns and controls the alternative water supply sites, whether it has the ability to repay the hundreds of millions it plans to borrow to pay for the projects and just exactly who’s still actively involved in participating in the projects.
Swiftmud is not going to fund a project that benefits only one city. Tumminia said, referring to the northwest Polk wellfield that may serve only Lakeland.
Governing Board member John Hall, one of two members from Polk, wondered whether they should invite cooperative board members to a future meeting for further discussion.
Swiftmud Executive Director Brian Armstrong said most of the questions the staff has are technical. Swiftmud officials are scheduled to attend the next PRWC meeting on Aug. 4 to present their concerns.
Polk’s effort has always been motivated by economic development dreams of leaders in some of the 17 cities who initially were involved in the establishment of the cooperative in 2017. The trouble is some, such as Davenport and Haines City, have discussed going it alone to develop their own alternative water supplies. Both cities have annexing like crazy into the former farmland and forests surrounding them and pushing new road projects to open up even more land for development
The message from Swiftmud officials is clear: if they want to do that, they’re on their own.
And just in case you’ve forgotten what this is about. A scientific study completed several years ago concluded the aquifer in this part of Florida is pretty well tapped out when it comes to sustainable withdrawals. That means anyone looking for more water needs to look elsewhere.
That has led to several years of getting permits for projects to tap the lower, poorer-quality reaches of the aquifer. That will require treating the water in a way similar to desalination in coastal areas and disposing of the brine even deeper underground.
There’s also talk of tapping the Peace River during peak flows when there are any—this summer hasn’t produced any so far—and storing water in old phosphate mine pits for later use. There is also talk of trying to get a share of the water that adjacent utilities that are drilling wells in remote areas in adjacent counties hope to obtain.