WINTER HAVEN — At a Winter Haven City Commission meeting May 28, City Manager Mike Herr said he would likely not recommend reducing last year’s city tax increase.
Herr explained this was in part because, over the next few years, Winter Haven taxpayers may be forced to help purchase expensive county water infrastructure that will, initially, only benefit Davenport area residents.
According to information made public during a May 15 Polk Regional Water Cooperative (PRWC) meeting, every taxpayer in the county may soon be sharing the cost of building a $352 million well field into the salty Lower Floridan Aquifer, unknown costs of the associated desalination plant and water pipes from the Lake Wales area to Davenport.
Engineers are recommending the first 7.5 million gallons per day of treated saltwater produced from the facility be piped exclusively to Davenport, the fastest-growing and driest municipality in the county. Loans taken out to facilitate this spending will be paid back in the form of higher water rates across the county, according to county documents.
For years, engineers advised the PRWC board that the Upper Florida Aquifer is drying up due to over pumping. They suggested using Lower Floridan Aquifer salt water for future water supply.
During a Winter Haven City Commission meeting May 28, Winter Haven Mayor Pro Tem Nat Birdsong, who represents the City of Winter Haven on the PRWC board, made multiple statements indicating he felt these engineers misled he and the PRWC board for years.
Birdsong said he was led to believe that this well field must be built or else there would not be enough water for the county. Birdsong said he was surprised to learn that Winter Haven residents were being asked to pay for infrastructure that Winter Haven residents may not need until 2040. Birdsong and Winter Haven Utilities Director Gary Hubbard were asked to update the other city commissioners about the process May 28.
“I’m telling you it didn’t really register to me (until the May 15 PRWC meeting),” Birdsong said.
The City of Winter Haven currently has a water-use permit for up to 14 million gallons per day, which runs out in 2040. City staff say residents currently use around 10 million gallons per day.
Birdsong said the need to build a desalination plant in Polk County was sold as a county-wide need — not a problem primarily to benefit residents of the northeastern portion of the county.
The Southeast Well Field on the Lake Wales Ridge has a water use permit of up to 30 million gallons per day, if built by 2023. Other municipalities can purchase this treated salt water after Davenport residents’ needs are met.
Winter Haven Assistant City Manager T. Michael Stavres said it is more affordable paying for this project collectively now than waiting until there is no water left.
City Manager Herr said making sure water supply is sufficient is essential to sustainable economic development.
“The water will not be free, and all of you know that, so we will have to figure out what solution is best for us,” Herr said.
The city manager said he would not consider reducing taxes next year in part because this expense is looming.
“We are asking the citizens to pay more,” Herr said.
Herr said he is scheduling more time to talk about the topic at city commission meetings scheduled for either June 10 or 24.
Commissioner Pete Chichetto also expressed some frustration with the process.
“This is not a good plan for us,” Chichetto said. “It’s a never ending cycle that will benefit Davenport because that is where the growth is. It’s mind-boggling and at the same time seems crazy.”