In addition to drilling into the Lower Floridan Aquifer to find enough water to continue to fuel Polk’s growth juggernaut to handle its projected 1 million residents in the next decade or so, the Polk Regional Water Cooperative was seriously looking at surface water, too.
That involved plans to either directly withdraw water from the Peace Creek drainage canal or from a reservoir along the Peace River near Fort Meade or to store water underground to get credit for recharge. That would allow some utilities to continue using the Upper Floridan Aquifer for their water demands.
Preliminary estimates put the potential from those sources at 40 million gallons a day.
Not so fast, the folks at the Southwest Florida Water Management District have been communicating recently.
The agency recently launched a much-awaited study to get a better idea of how much water the Peace River needs at various flow levels to accommodate not only the need for fish to be able to swim downstream without being stranded on a sand bar—that study was completed in the 1980s– but what various creatures ranging from frogs to aquatic invertebrates need to thrive during typical medium and high flows.
The study will be completed by 2025.
By then the cooperative is scheduled to already be well under way toward building a water plant and a pipeline system in eastern Polk County, relying on water from a series of wells that have been drilled near Lake Walk-in-the-Water east of Lake Wales and another series of wells that will be drilled even deeper to get rid of the water-treatment plant waste.
The estimated capital costs for that project have already topped half a billion dollars and may increase before the so-called alternative water supply begins flowing west toward cities along the U.S. 27 corridor and beyond.
Meanwhile, Swiftmud officials have told the folks at the cooperative that it is unclear how much, if any, water will be available from the Peace River system and have asked and cooperative has agreed to shelve any further studies until the minimum flow study is completed.
Meanwhile, I was curious why the medium and upper flow studies were coming now so many years after the initial work, which had actually been mandated by a 1972 law that apparently allow for long delays.
The answer I received from Swiftmud officials was that this was part of a long-range plan to implement the recovery strategy for something called the Southern Water-Use Caution Area.
For those of you who may relatively new to the region’s water problems, the SWUCA was designated in 1992 to deal with declining aquifer levels, lake levels and river flows caused by overpumping of the aquifer.
This decline had been suspected for some time, but it took a while to gather the data to come up with a regulatory proposal to deal with it that would withstand legal challenges from water permit holders who could be affected by limits to pumping.
Polk County officials and a number of commercial interests did challenge the rule. Following what was described as the longest administrative hearing in Florida history up that time, Swiftmud prevailed. That allowed the agency to work on a plan to fix the problem, but it took awhile to come up with analytical tools to do that in some cases.
Meanwhile, the competition for water resources and uncertainty about the sustainability of the aquifer spread to more areas of central Florida, leading to the initiation of something called the Central Florida Initiative in 2016.
That project, which involved not only Swiftmud, but the South Florida and St. Johns River water management districts as well, yielded a report that concluded that water users in this part of Florida had pretty well tapped out the Upper Floridan Aquifer and had to look for alternative sources.
That is what has led to the Polk water cooperative and similar projects in the region.
The good part is this will at least theoretically prevent the further overexploitation of the Floridan aquifer, whose level had already dropped 50 feet and caused at least one major spring to stop flowing by the time these plans came into place.
The bad news is that the water supply and demand projections go out only a couple of decades.
What happens after that if water demand increases and sea level rise threatens to contaminate some current freshwater supplies is anybody’s guess.
As Yogi Berra once reportedly remarked. The future ain’t what it used to be.