SARASOTA — A potentially expensive water war will continue after a mediation session between the parties reached an impasse Monday.
There was hope that the parties to the litigation — the Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, on one side and the Polk County Water Cooperative on the other — could reach a mediated settlement around a proposal made by Brian Armstrong, executive director of Swiftmud.
Two weeks ago, Armstrong suggested a plan that would get Polk involved in a project under development in Hillsborough County that has the potential to solve Polk’s future water needs. Armstrong’s plan met with a positive reception according to reporting by the Lakeland Ledger, leading officials to believe an agreement to end the pending litigation could be reached.
Armstrong also suggested that the parties could put the litigation on hold while the details were worked out.
That was not to be as Polk rejected Armstrong’s proposal during the Monday mediation session, according to Pat Lehman, executive director of the authority.
“It’s unfortunate that the litigation was not set aside as proposed by the District,” Lehman wrote in an email. “Pursuing the District’s proposed regional water supply project would have been a much wiser use of public funds.”
Lehman indicated that the authority’s board has approved $500,000 to prepare for the litigation, but expects the cost to balloon over $1 million.
Commissioner Alan Maio, who also serves as chairman of the authority’s board, reported on the impasse to commissioners during their meeting Tuesday in Venice, without commenting on the mediation session.
But, Maio did make the point that during Hurricane Irma last year, the water flow in the Peace River at that time would have been “enough to supply our four-county region for a year.”
Maio said the authority’s plans for the third reservoir and additional withdrawals would allow the authority to “be ahead of the game,” referring to anticipated future demands.
A year ago, the authority filed an application with the authority for a permit to withdraw up to 258 million gallons of water a day from the Peace River to meet the future needs of its customers. Swiftmud did grant the permit, but on the last day of a 21-day comment period, Polk responded with a lawsuit, joined by the county’s five cities, challenging the permit.
Polk, with its many municipalities and where the headwaters of the Peace River originate, is looking to the river as its future water supply and sees the authority’s plan to withdraw additional supplies as a threat to its own plans.
Hillsborough’s project, a complicated process, essentially involves injecting reclaimed water into the saltwater zone of the aquifer and raising the freshwater supply table upstream from Polk County.
Lehman has said that Hillsborough is supportive of the idea that Polk County join the project.
An administrative hearing in the litigation before an administrative law judge is scheduled to begin Jan. 28 and continue until Feb. 15.