The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board voted unanimously today to delay further funding for projects sought by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative until Polk officials settle a pending legal dispute over proposed water rules, better define their proposed projects and commit to their share of project funding.
Staff members told the board they expect to have the issues resolved by May, when they are scheduled to provide an update at the May 25 regular meeting.
The dispute involves a proposal by the Central Florida Water Initiative to enact a rule that will limit future permitted withdrawals from the Upper Floridan Aquifer to prevent further damage to lakes, rivers and wetlands from overconsumption.
Nine of the 16 local governments that have challenged the CFWI’s proposed rule are members of the Polk cooperative, including the Polk County Commission. They argue the permit restrictions threaten local economic development and their ability to deal with future growth.
Swiftmud Deputy General Counsel Chris Tumminia said the current challenges differed from the earlier dispute over allocation of water in the Peace River when PRWC officials acknowledged groundwater will be limited and they needed alternative supplies, such as surface water.
“Now they’re arguing they don’t need groundwater limitations and expect to get increases (in their permits); it’s completely contradictory,” he said.
He said a tentative settlement has been reached—details were still being worked out and are not public—that would end the challenge if it is approved.
Stephen James, the cooperative’s project director, told board members the settlement will allow temporary allocations from the Upper Floridan Aquifer while they develop alternative supplies.
The primary alternative supply involves drilling wells into the Lower Floridan Aquifer, which will require the water to be treated similar to what occurs at a coastal desalination plant before it can be used for drinking.
The cooperative has a permit from the South Florida Water Management District to pump up to 30 million gallons a day from a network of wells in the Lake Walkinwater area east of Lake Wales, Swiftmud Executive Director Brian Armstrong told board members.
The measures Armstrong recommended and the board approved including having signed and approved settlement agreements to end the rule challenge, obtaining a clearer definition of the size and scope of the cooperative’s projects for which it is seeking Swiftmud funding and having assurance there are adequate funding partners to complete the projects.
This issues will also be discussed at the next cooperative meeting, which will occur April 28 in Winter Haven.
Tuesday’s decision and t he proposed settlement agreements appear to prevent what some observers considered an opening battle in a regional water war reminiscent of the disputes that occurred in the Tampa Bay area decades ago.
The proposed CFWI rule affects not only Polk County, but also major water users in Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.
The CFWI was established as the result of a joint effort that began in 2006 to head off a similar water war in the Orlando area.