POLK COUNTY – If things go as planned, taxpayers in Polk County may soon be sharing the cost of piping millions of gallons of water per day to Davenport, the fastest growing and driest part of the county.

Experts say there is not enough water in the Upper Floridan Aquifer (UFA) under Davenport to keep pace with projected population growth.

The Polk Regional Water Cooperative board is planning to build a $352 million desalination plant between Lake Wales and Frostproof to solve that problem. Davenport residents will benefit from the first 7.5 millions of gallons per day (mgd) of treated salt water.

No other municipality would benefit without building water pipes connecting to the remote Lower Floridan Aquifer well location. Despite that, all 17 county municipalities are obligated to pay percentages of the total cost. Specific amounts will be discussed by the PRWC board July 17.

During a PRWC meeting May 15, Lake Alfred City Manager Ryan Leavengood explained that municipal governments will not be able to pick and choose whether or not to get in line and purchase this treated salt water. As members of the cooperative, each municipality is contractually obligated to pay its “fair share,” as described in PRWC documents.

For example, the City of Winter Haven has a water-use permit that allows for up to 14 million gallons per day to be pumped out of the Upper Floridian Aquifer every day. Currently, city residents use around 10 mgd. City staff say Winter Haven residents may not need more water until 2040 — possibly longer if water conservation programs are successful.

Still, Winter Haven residents are obligated to pay around 10 percent of the county share for the project.

“That first 7.5 mgd may be the most expensive water we ever do,” Leavengood said.

In March 2006, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) adopted something called the Southern Water Use Caution Area (SWUCA) Recovery Strategy.

At the time, almost all of the water being consumed by county residents was taken from the Upper Floridan Aquifer. Experts at the time suggested that Central Floridians were so dependent on the UFA that saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico was starting to infiltrate the UFA around Tampa Bay. The Upper Peace River and many lakes in Polk County were down to historically low levels.

The SWUCA Recovery Strategy was a warning to area leaders at the time that alternative water supplies — water from places other than the UFA — would have to fuel future growth.

Gene Heath works for the county as a Polk Regional Water Cooperative (PRWC) coordinator now, but in 2006 he worked for SWFWMD. On May 5, Heath said he remembered how Winter Haven City Manager Mike Herr, who was Polk County Manager in 2006, reacted to the SWUCA report. Heath said Herr was worried about which alternative water supply options were available.

Heath and former SWFWMD Executive Director Robert Beltran told Herr that the best alternative water supply option was building wells into the Lower Floridan Aquifer (LFA), where the water is salty and expensive to treat because it is saturated in many other dissolved solids.

At first, county leaders tried to build a LFA well field near Davenport but the wells kept caving in. Around this time Herr resigned and Jim Freeman took over as Polk County Manager. With help from people such as Heath and Beltran, Freeman and county staff applied for a SWFWMD water-use permit to try building LFA wells under the Lake Wales Ridge. This site is commonly referred to as the Southeast Well Field and is located between Lake Wales and Frostproof.

The Southeast Well Field permit was approved in 2014, with a clause that said the project would have to be completed by 2023.

In 2016, the PRWC board was formed to review and vote on alternative water supply plans. In January 2017, Beltran advised the board that it would cost around a billion dollars to build the top alternative water supply projects. Several months later, Beltran quit as PRWC advisor to join a team of engineers who bid $23 million and won a five-year contract to study these project ideas. Two years into that study, Team One staff say they are done studying the problem and that it's time to start transitioning to phase two, building infrastructure.

“We wondered if we'd ever get to the point where we might build something,” Heath said. “Today is your day.”

UFA water supplies look much different now compared to 2006. According to SWFWMD staff who spoke to the PRWC board May 15, around 80 mgd less water is being pumped out of the UFA, as compared to 2006. SWFWMD staff say farming technology has reduced how much water is used for farming over the past decade.

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