WINTER HAVEN — City Manager Mike Herr recently said that Florida Department of Economic Opportunity staff will be in Winter Haven Jan. 26 to further analyze a $45 million grant application to purchase four tracts of wetlands around the city over the coming years.

City commissioners authorized city staff to apply for the Rebuild Florida General Infrastructure Program grant on Aug. 24. Funded by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development CBDG-MIT program, the grant is administered locally by FDEO staff.

Herr said his team gave FDEO staff a Winter Haven One Water land acquisition presentation around Christmastime, and that — based on the amount of good questions asked — he felt good about the chances that the grant application could be approved.

The reason why city staff want to purchase the wetlands is described in a 2010 city document titled “Sapphire Necklace Hydrologic Restoration Project.”

The document summarizes a theory that the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes and surrounding wetlands can be used more effectively as a water resource. The study starts off saying that a hundred years ago, as the City of Winter Haven started growing, water supply was not a concern. Summer flooding was a much greater concern.

Man-made drainage canals were built along the south Chain of Lakes, at Lake Shipp, and on the north Chain of Lakes, at Lake Hamilton. To prevent houses on the Chain of Lakes from flooding during summer storm season, these drainage canals helped keep water levels at consistent levels.

But the City of Winter Haven has grown exponentially since then, and since there is now a concern that too much water is being pumped out of the Upper Floridan Aquifer for public water supply, experts have been studying alternative water possibilities for more than the past decade.

The 2010 document states that the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes and surrounding wetlands could theoretically be used to store around 9.5 billion gallons of rainwater per year – an amount which could be treated and used as an alternative water supply that could benefit residents countywide.

Currently, almost every drop of rain that lands in Winter Haven finds its way down the 100-year-old drainage canals and eventually is used by coastal communities for water supply. Around two years ago, county officials won a court case during which a judge decided county officials had a right to try and harvest more rainwater for local use.

The City of Winter Haven Sapphire Necklace Hydrologic Restoration Project is one of several possible ways to ensure sufficient future water supply.

The Polk Regional Water Cooperative board has tasked their advisors with studying the feasibility of building two desalination plants in Polk County in the coming years and also studying the feasibility of building a water reservoir on Peace River, near the Polk and Hardee county line.

City staff are partnering with PRWC staff to try and get a water use permit to implement parts of the Sapphire Necklace plan, but the application has yet to be completed.

The PRWC board meets next on Jan. 20 at 2 p.m. at the AdventHealth Fieldhouse. A Zoom link is available upon request. Public comment starts at the beginning of each meeting of the board.