WINTER HAVEN – On Sept. 9, after 10 years in the planning stage, city staff revealed an ambitious long-term plan to try and restore thousands of acres of wetlands, build a bike/pedestrian trail surrounding the city, improve water quality in the Chain of Lakes and help ensure there is enough water supply to meet future growth demands in Polk County.

City staff say the plan, which was revealed during a Winter Haven City Commission Agenda Review Meeting, would do all of these things at the same time, using a combination of Mother Nature, public tax dollars and private investment.

The “Sapphire Necklace Hydrologic Restoration Project” was written by City of Winter Haven staff and other community leaders in 2010. It proposed using Florida summer rainwater as a future public water supply in Polk County. But the proposal to state regulators never caught on in terms of state funding support.

Instead, state regulators co-funded a $23 million feasibility study to build a Lower Floridan Aquifer salt water desalination plant in Polk County along the Lake Wales Ridge, and later studied a second desalination plant in Lakeland.

That feasibility study, commissioned by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative, suggested the proposed plants could produce 45 million gallons of water per day and that it would cost around $1 billion to build the two projects.

Not long after that revelation, city staff said their 2010 proposal started getting more internal discussion and that the Sapphire Necklace project morphed into the City of Winter Haven One Water Master Plan.

On Sept. 9, City of Winter Haven staff and their advisors made a public presentation of the One Water Master Plan.

The basic concept is fairly straightforward. According to city documents, 100 years ago, systems of canals were dug to prevent flooding in Winter Haven from summer stormwater. At the time, no one realized that the practice would contribute to modern day problems.

Black & Yeatch project manager Jon Dinges is a contract advisor for the city.

“The One Water Master Plan builds upon prior work,” Dinges said.

Currently, when it rains in Polk County, it doesn't take long for the rainwater to collect in lakes and eventually flow out of Polk County, through a series of creeks and canals. Eventually, that water will travel down the Peace River for residents in Sarasota and other coastal cities to use.

Presently, just about every drop of water that comes out of Polk residents’ tap at home comes from the Upper Floridan Aquifer, which many experts say is exhausted and cannot meet future water demands in Central Florida.

Rather than letting summer rain that falls on Polk County continue to flow downstream for others to use, the water could, theoretically, be diverted into wetlands here locally — where it can be stored for water supply in the dry winter months.

Unlike some lakes, which are directly tied to the aquifer, the muck of wetlands does not allow as much seepage. As such, it is perfect for natural water storage, city staff say.

Rather than investing in man-made water infrastructure, such as a desalination plant, public investment could be diverted toward purchasing wetlands to restore in partnership with private developers, according to the One Water Master Plan documentation.

Local leaders would have to borrow around $400 million to build a well field and desalination plant near Interstate 4 in Lakeland. That proposed plant is estimated to produce around 10 million gallons per day of water — or 3.65 billion gallons per year.

In comparison, the 2010 Sapphire Necklace document states that the city could, theoretically, store around 9.5 billion gallons of rainwater in the Chain of Lakes and nearby wetlands each year. Wetlands and trails also require relatively little in ongoing costs.

Another concept described in the One Water Master Plan would involve eliminating the flow of water from the South Chain of Lakes to the Peace River altogether.

When rain falls on Legoland Florida Resort, for example, that water eventually flows down the Peace River. But, city staff suggest it is possible to divert that water to the North Chain — and then into wetlands connected to the North Chain.

Some concepts associated with the One Water Master Plan have already been implemented.

City commissioners authorized staff to apply for a $47 million state grant on Aug. 24 in order to purchase four tracts of wetlands. One of those tracts is at the northwest corner of U.S. 27 and Cypress Gardens Boulevard.

Currently, the land is a giant cow pasture. City staff want to partner with the landowner to flood the property with summer storm water, to build a new road connecting Cypress Gardens Boulevard with Dundee Road, and to let the property owner benefit from the proximity to water and a new road.

In return, the public would benefit from cleaner water, using rainwater to supplement current groundwater supplies, a new trail, and increased property values.

According to the 2010 Sapphire Necklace study, the City of Winter Haven was the only city in the United States with annual dedicated funding toward water quality. Since, the One Water Master Plan has guided the construction of wetlands nature parks at Lake Howard, Lake Hartridge, Lake Maude and Lake Conine, with co-funding from the state.

Should elected officials in Polk County choose to build two desalination plants instead of one desalination plant that is supplemented by the One Water Master Plan, residents could pay the difference in the form of higher water bills starting around 2030.

Elsewhere, leaders in Bartow have also expressed interest in alternatives to the PRWC staff recommendations to build desalination plants, but fewer details have been made public. The PRWC board is scheduled to finalize a contract with a mediator to help the board determine which path to take this afternoon.

In theory, other municipalities could connect with Winter Haven’s plan, also. Parts of Peace Creek run through Lake Wales and Haines City, for instance, and could connect with the Chain of Lakes with a relatively simple canal to Lake Hamilton.

There are fewer alternative water supply options in Lakeland, Polk City, Davenport and especially the fast-growing Four Corners area.

The PRWC board meets at 2 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex in Auburndale.