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POLK COUNTY – At a Polk Regional Water Cooperative meeting Jan. 15, Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey and PRWC lawyer Ed de la Parte repeated what Frostproof Mayor Martin Sullivan described as an “old threat.”

Lindsey and de la Porte said that any Polk County municipality that does not want to participate in the PRWC plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on two Lower Floridan Aquifer (LFA) wellfields and the associated desalination treatment plants may not have any access to additional water to fuel future growth.

The only Polk County municipality not to opt in as a member of the PRWC in 2017 was the City of Frostproof.

"That is the same old threat we heard a few years ago,” Sullivan said. “It was a veiled threat then, but foreshadowed exactly what has become the actual threat.”

In reference to other municipalities which may weigh whether to drop out of the PRWC in the future, Lindsey asked de la Parte, “What happens if they decide not to (participate)?”

In response, de la Parte suggested that municipalities in Polk County which vote to leave the PRWC are unlikely to get a water-use permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District Water for additional water to be pumped out of the Upper Floridan Aquifer and that, additionally, treated saltwater from the Lower Floridan Aquifer provided by the PRWC’s wells may not be available.

According to the PRWC board, it will cost $492 million to build LFA wellfields and associated desalination plants near Frostproof, on the Lake Wales Ridge, and in Lakeland, near Interstate 4. This estimate does not include costs to build pipes connecting the desalination plants to 15 Polk County municipalities, nor the costs to maintain or store water coming from the plants.

Half of this money budgeted to finance the project is being borrowed, with loan payments scheduled to start in 2032. Officials anticipate the loan payments being made largely in the form of higher water rates in the coming years across the county. The other half of the financing is being paid by SWFWMD, with money generated from Polk County property taxes.

“It only plays out if the water management district sticks to their guns and says ‘you are not going to get a permit for additional allocations and you may get a rollback,’” Lindsey said. “But if they (SWFWMD staff) grant an extension, then this house of cards falls.”

Fort Meade Commissioner Jim Watts, a member of the PRWC Board, expressed some concern.

“In other words, if you don't vote to be active in the cooperative, you are shafted — or left out in the cold,” Watts said. “Left dry.”

Polk City Mayor Joe LaCascia, a proponent of trying to reduce the amount of water being used for landscaping irrigation, said around 1,000 new homes are being built in Polk City in 2020 and that his city commission is forcing developers to install water conservation devices on new homes.

Lindsey suggested that residents may water their lawns less often once water rates increase — perhaps dramatically — in the near future.

“I think some of these compounding (water) rates are going to help with conservation efforts substantially,” Lindsey said.

The City of Frostproof’s SWFWMD water-use permit allows for an average of around 870,000 gallons to be removed from the UFA per day. That permit expires Dec. 10, 2020.

Sullivan said Frostproof residents currently use around 381,000 gallons of water from the UFA daily and that there is no need to purchase additional water from the PRWC — or a need to help pay for the PRWC plan.

Asked if he thought his words could be classified as a threat Jan 15, Lindsey said no.

“The circumstances of limited supply and increased demand is what brought us all to the table to begin with,” Lindsey said. “Nothing has changed.”

Conservation matters

The Upper Floridan Aquifer started showing signs of being exhausted as early as the 1950s in Polk County, when Mosaic phosphate mining wells are believed to have contributed to Kissengen Springs drying out.

Combined, agricultural and mining use of water from the aquifer each day far exceeds water used by residents.

According to SWFWMD staff, in Polk County around 110 million gallons per day are removed for agricultural use and around 70 million gallons per day are removed for industrial and civic use, each — combining for a total of around 250 million gallons per day.

According to Winter Haven Water Conservation Specialist Keeli Carlton, 40 percent of all treated water pumped out of the ground in Winter Haven goes toward landscaping irrigation.

Central Florida Water Initiative engineer David MacIntyre described the results of a recently published water study Jan. 15.

Per the study, every single day across Central Florida, 860 million gallons of water are pumped from the Upper Floridan Aquifer. One third of that — roughly 285 million gallons — is used by residents. In Winter Haven 40 percent of the water used by private residents is used for landscaping purposes. If that percentage is roughly mirrored throughout Central Florida, it would mean an estimated 114 million gallons per day is used for landscaping purposes.

Currently, Polk County staff, Winter Haven staff and Lakeland staff are available to help residents learn about low-flow toilet rebates, smart irrigation rebates and Florida-friendly landscaping rebates. Wireless rain sensors and water conservation kits are free to county residents.

In cases of residents who use vast amounts of water for irrigation, staff are available for home visits to aid with setting up landscaping controllers. Across the district, it is only allowable for individual residents and business to water landscaping twice per week.

PRWC staff have more than $300,000 left in their conservation budget to help residents conserve more water. Those interested in conservation should contact their local utility department for more details.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@d-r.media.