POLK COUNTY – On Nov. 13, the Polk Regional Water Cooperative unanimously voted to move forward with a plan to borrow around $250 million from the federal government.
The loan would be used to partially pay local costs for what could be a $1 billion water infrastructure project, primarily a plan to build two desalination plants in Polk County by 2027.
Groundwater has been steadily depleting under Polk County since at least the 1950s, when Kissengen Springs dried up due to excessive pumping. A few years ago, state officials warned Polk County leaders that future water supplies would have to come from alternative water sources, such as capturing surface water in lakes and rivers, or salt water in the Lower Floridan Aquifer.
The Southwest Water Management District has already agreed to pay 50 percent of the total cost of future alternative water supplies. If the two desalination plants are built as proposed, county taxpayers could be on the hook to pay the remaining $500 million in construction costs.
To cover the other $250 million in local costs, the PRWC board is considering borrowing additional money from the state, substantially raising water bills to residents to make federal and state loan payments starting around 2033.
Now, the latest proposal from the board includes possibly charging farmers and miners — who currently don't pay for the water they use — in the form of impact fees or special assessments.
Davenport City Commissioner Tom Fellows raised concerns at the last PRWC meeting when told water rates for Davenport residents could go up as high as 77 percent to pay back federal and state loans. That percentage could decrease if farmers and miners are asked to pay their share of future water supplies.
All of this discussion is in the late planning stages. To date, there has been no public objection, however. Most of those who attend the PRWC meetings, which are public, are elected officials and government staff.
Polk County is unique in that when it rains, much of that water flows outside of the county due to higher ground elevation here compared to coastal communities. Capturing more rainwater before it flows out of the county is another option to address the water crisis, but that would also require a taxpayer investment.
Currently, almost all of the water that residents, farmers and the mining industry currently use comes from the easy to reach, clean and relatively inexpensive water in the Upper Floridan Aquifer.
Water from the Upper Floridan Aquifer costs approximately $1.50 per gallon of treated water. Removing saltwater out of the Lower Floridan Aquifer, treating it and moving it could cost around $4 per gallon, PRWC staff said last week.
In addition to building two desalination plants, the PRWC board is also considering an investment in aquifer recharge.
Some have suggested that efforts to recharge the aquifer by harvesting more summer stormwater, recycling treated wastewater and storing summer stormwater in reservoirs for use in the dry winter months could be a less expensive option than building two desalination plants. The cost to recharge the aquifer has yet to be calculated by PRWC advisors.
The City of Winter Haven’s "One Water" initiative is currently studying a recharge plan, but official numbers have not been released by city staff yet.
The water-use permit associated with the first desalination plant, in between Frostrpoof and Lake Wales, says the plant must be built by 2023 in order to keep the permit active.
The PRWC board has yet to authorize county staff to actually apply for the federal grant, but the board has approved county staff to start putting the loan application together.