Polk Water Future’s One Certainty: It Will Cost More To Feed The Growth Machine

There are still some missing pieces in Polk’s water plan, based on what I heard Tuesday night at the latest local water summit put on by the Polk County Water Cooperative.

The cooperative is a paradox.

It is an innovative confederation of local officials uniting in Polk County for the first time to find a way to deal with water problems by embracing a plan that promotes doing things the way they’ve always done it, regardless of the cost.

The problem they confront is that public water utility departments have tapped out their traditional, relatively cheap sources and will have to find a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to find additional water somewhere to maintain current growth patterns.

The current projections only guarantee water for the next generation.

After that, who knows?

The missing pieces are where the money will come from to finance these plans, which lean heavily on what amounts to a network of inland desalination plants to tap poor quality water in a section of the aquifer beneath the fresh water section that has been the traditional source up until now.

Local officials and their consultants have come up with some credible proposed sources that include getting money from the water management district, getting money from the Florida Legislature, issuing ponds, asking the voters to increase the local sales tax and raising utility rates.

The nagging concern for all of us who are municipal utility customers is that there could come a day when our water bills are as high as our sewer bills. What the future rates will be is a big question mark because the plan isn’t far enough along to provide good numbers, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.

There are alternatives, such as capping water permits, but while that’s technically defensible, the politics are against it for now.

Nothing is going to happen immediately.

Polk legislators may make a run at a bill this year that would authorize money for water projects and give Polk the right to use voter-approved sales tax money for water projects. The rationale for the legislation is that Polk is a special place at the headwaters for several rivers and home of the Green Swamp and deserving of state help.

As I wrote in an earlier post, some of the bill’s introductory language needs some fact-checking and wordsmithing, but if it promotes more growth in Florida, that may not matter, for now.

Polk Water Planners Seek Changes In State Law On Taxes, Spending

Tuesday night’s Polk Regional Water Cooperative meeting in Bartow will include an introduction to something called the Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act.

It is draft legislation that has not been filed, according to the Florida Legislature’s website. There’s no word on potential sponsors.

The key elements of the legislation, posted in the agenda packet at http://www.prwcwater.org/ involve persuading the Florida Legislature to fund water supply projects in Polk in exchange for filing annual reports outlining what Polk officials are doing to further water planning, conservation, stormwater management and environmental restoration.

The proposed change in Florida law also would allow local discretionary sales taxes to be spent by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative for water supply development if voters approve the sales tax increase.

The copy of the draft bill posted on the cooperative website (see pages 133-143 in the agenda backup) may need some editing to clear up some confusing language in the findings and intent section.

It refers to the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern, but appears to claim Bartow lies within the Green Swamp, which it doesn’t. It also refers to the headwaters of the Alafia River, which lies in Polk County, but nowhere near the Green Swamp. There is no mention of Polk’s portion of the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, a small portion of which begins at the edge of the Green Swamp.

Florida DEP Chief Resigns

Joe Steverson, the latest head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott, has resigned.

This is the second major shakeup in the agency since Don Forgione was dismissed in December as head of the state park system.

Steverson, who was appointed in 2015, drew fire for suggesting allowing more commercial activities in state parks to make them more financially self-sufficient. His department also drew fire last year for deciding it was unnecessary to inform the public about a sinkhole Mosaic reported beneath a gypsum stack near Mulberry that potentially threatened to contaminate area drinking water wells.

No well contamination was ever documented.

Reports indicate Scott may quickly appoint a successor as occurred following Forgione’s departure.


Issues To Watch In 2017 Legislative Session

The opening session of the Florida Legislature is now slightly more than a month away.

This week 1000 Friends of Florida presented a webinar on some issues to watch.

Many of them are environmental issues.

Amendment 1 spending: This continues to be a repudiation of will of the voters who overwhelming voted in 2014 to spend more money on land protection to restart the Florida Forever program that was sidelined during the budget crunch following the collapse of the real estate bubble. Out of the $646 million available for expenditures other than debt service, very little appears to be going to land acquisition and is being diverted to management and administrative costs instead. Interestingly, Adam Putnam’s Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services is seeking $50 million to purchase conservation easements from farmers while Rick Scott’s Florida Department of Environmental Protection is seeking only $15 million for park purchases.

Fracking: Bills (SB 98, HB 35) have been filed to ban fracking in Florida and some key legislative leaders are supporting it.

Plastic Bags: Two bills (SB 162, HB 93) have been filed to launch a pilot program for some coastal communities to enact temporary bans on disposable plastic bags and submit a report to state officials on the impact the bans have.

Everglades Restoration: The issue to watch is the outcome of Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to purchase 60,000 acres in the Everglades Agriculture Area to store water to return historic water flow to Everglades National Park.

Environmental Regulation Commission: Legislation (SB198) has been proposed to force Scott to fill vacancies on the panel and to require a supermajority to approve changes in air and water pollution standards.

To view details of any legislation, committees to which bills have been assigned and other details, go to Online Sunshine, the Florida Legislature’s home page, and follow the links.

Are you hearing these Everglades red herrings

A lot of red herrings are swimming around Lake Okeechobee these days as opponents of what Sierra Club and others think is the best path to Everglades restoration use misleading statements and sometimes outright lies to undermine the effort and divide the public

If you hear these claims, there are some facts you can use to respond.

CLAIM: The plan is looking at the wrong pollution culprit. The real problem is septic tanks in coastal communities.

RESPONSE: While septic tanks–especially poorly maintained ones–are not good for water quality, the volume of the pollution coming from septic tanks in the St. Lucie estuary areas make up about 4 percent of the pollution loading. The rest is lake and farm discharges.

CLAIM: The environmentalists’ plan will make the condition of endangered species such as the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and the Snail Kite worse.

RESPONSE: Actually the main threat the sparrow faces is the delay by SFWMD is getting more fresh water into its habitat. The kites are being hurt by water level manipulation that hurts reproduction of apple snails, their primary source of food.

CLAIM: Environmentalists are trying to kill the sugar industry, which will wreck the local economy.

RESPONSE: What environmentalists are advocating is that the sugar industry become a better neighbor by reducing its air and water pollution. Additionally, increased mechanization is putting residents out of jobs and the health of those who depend on subsistence fishing to supplement their diets is threatened by fish-consumption advisories.

CLAIM: The solution is to pump the polluted water underground into injection wells.

RESPONSE: That’s a wasteful plan that deprives natural areas of water they need to restore freshwater ecosystems and counteract encroaching tidal influence and hypersalinity in Florida Bay. It’s a matter of dispute on whether permits will be approved for this approach.

CLAIM: The plan is set in stone and cannot be revised.

RESPONSE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contend this is a living document that can be reviewed to reflect changing conditions and new information.

CLAIM: The environmentalists’ plan will flood out Everglades residents.

RESPONSE: Absolutely false.

Controversial Polk toll road back in state’s hands

A year after the Polk County Commission voted unanimously to form their own expressway authority to try to find another way to build the controversial n Central Polk Parkway, I learned recently the idea has been quietly dropped and any future development of the project would be handled the Florida Department of Transportation’s Turnpike District.

Polk officials voted to form the authority after FDOT officials announced in late 2015 that they would not fund further planning for the road because their analysis showed it was not financially feasible at this time.

The only portion of the 50-mile, $1.5 billion project that is under active consideration at the moment is a short section between the Polk Parkway near the county landfill and the area around the CSX rail freight center in south Winter Haven. That section has not been controversial.

The controversy—Sierra Club has been on record in opposition—involves the larger section that would loop through rural areas east of Haines City in the Marion Creek basin, potentially opening the area to more development and making the use of prescribed fire for land management more difficult because of smoke management conflicts a new road and subsequent surrounding development will cause.

That section of the road has the backing of Haines City area economic development boosters who, to their credit, have been pretty up front in supporting the road primarily as an economic development project rather than the solution to traffic congestion on U.S. 27. The latter was the official line from Polk County planners when the project was first proposed in 2008.

It has been clear from correspondence I’ve seen that the proposed road’s ability to advance real estate development has been the main topic of local officials’ inquiries about the project’s status.

That’s in contrast to Lakeland leaders’ coyness about the purpose of the Polk Parkway, which began as simply the desire for another route between Florida Avenue and U.S. 98 and grew into a toll road that spurred a lot of new development in Lakeland and Auburndale.

Whether that road ever generated enough toll revenue to justify its construction remains an unanswered question.

Also unknown is when FDOT officials will re-evaluate the rural section of the Central Polk Parkway. This isn’t over yet.

Bull Creek will remain public

Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area east of St. Cloud in Osceola County will remain public land, the St. Johns River Water Management District announced this week.

District officials reported that negotiations have ended on a controversial land swap that would have turned the popular outdoor recreation area and important regional habitat area into a private agricultural operation.

The land swap had drawn widespread opposition from various recreational user groups ranging from hikers to hunters.

Other critics of the swap pointed out that Bull Creek is important habitat for rare Florida butterfly species such the Arogos Skipper and the Dusted Skipper (pictured at left).

As a result, the site draws a number nature photographers and was among the sites for field trips when the North American Butterfly Association held its national convention at Westgate River Ranch Resort near Lake Wales a few years ago.