There’s water, water everywhere in Florida but only so many drops to drink and so many ways to pipe those drops from wells to spigots.
With growth pressing on Lakeland and its neighboring Polk County cities, in April the City Commission agreed to sign onto preliminary proposals by the Polk Regional Water Cooperative (PRWC) to develop regional projects that would secure the city’s access to an additional 10 million gallons of water a day (mgd) by 2045.
The city agreed to participate in the collaborative to diversify its water sources and secure entitlements to additional water. Its 35.2 mgd water use permit expires in 2038. Lakeland’s water utility now uses 22.5 mgd to serve more than 160,000 accounts.
Commissioners Monday approved pacts to participate in two collaborative projects — the $226 million West Polk Lower Floridian Aquifer Wellfield plan, which calls for drilling down into brackish water south of I-4, and the $415 million Southeast Wellfield project pan.
Under the agreements (view them here and here), Lakeland would draw 80% of the water tapped from the West Polk wellfield and take on a $182 million proportional share, and draw 0.1% of water produced by the Southeast wellfield and take on a $2 million proportional share for the project east of Lake Wales, projected to produce 12.5 mgd by 2045.
“This is a very expensive project,” Lakeland City Attorney Parker Davis said when introducing both proposals to commission before explaining how grant funding and low-interest loans will cover much of the costs.
Under the pact, he said, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) will reimburse 50% of that $182 million proportional share, reducing the city’s bite to $91 million for the West Polk wellfield project.
Of that $91 million, about 48% will be financed with a Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Davis said, with the remainder funded through a State Revolving Fund loan issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“Three of those financial partners are onboard with the agreement,” he said, but only if collective members consented to three amendments on their preliminary April agreement.
The April pact allowed Lakeland and other municipalities to back out of a project when planning phase is 60% complete, paying only for costs incurred to that date before construction started.
“Swiftmud was not willing to agree” with the 60% off-ramp, Davis said, because the state regional water district wants to ensure “a solid commitment from all parties involved” before agreeing to foot half the costs.
“Despite eliminating the off-ramp, there is still opportunity to assess (projects) going forward for reasonableness and costs,” he said.
The West Polk wellfield project will advance in increments with the first phase to produce 2.5 mgd by 2027. At the completion of increments, “We have the opportunity to assess this project and determine how much it is going to cost going forward” and opt out if the commission wants, he said.
The second amendment to the April agreement is that collaborative participants must maintain a reserve account to ensure loan payments “in the event of non-payment” by any member.
The amendment is “more a WIFIA side of things,” Davis said, noting federal fund managers insist all “member jurisdictions must contribute to a reserve fund to cover any shortfall default by a member jurisdiction.”
The third amendment revises how members will vote on different projects with “a hybrid voting method” that requires both a majority of a weighted vote and an absolute majority of all project participants.
In voting on the West Polk wellfield project because Lakeland’s water allotment percentage is 80.077%, no action could be taken without Lakeland’s consent but a majority of project participants could, according to city analysts, “theoretically prevent Lakeland from mandating that action on an item be taken without the majority’s consent.”
Lakeland would draw 80.077% of the water, pay 80.077% of the costs and its vote constitute 80.077% of decisions. Polk County (12.436%), Bartow (4.568%), Winter Haven (1.270%), Auburndale (1.269%) and Polk City (0.380%) are the other West Polk wellfield project participants.
The same amendments were approved by the commission to apply to the Southeast wellfield project where the city’s estimated participation is $2.04 million.
Lakeland Director of Water Utilities Bill Anderson said the newly formed collaborative has studied as many as 200 projects which has been “narrowed down to four and you’re looking at two today.”
Anderson said local, county and state water experts began the effort “trying to project water needs 50 years out” but eventually “brought that back down to a 20-year planning horizon,” although, he added, the agencies are “still looking out 30 to 40 years.”
Whether the projection is 50 years or 20 years, without additional water sources, “’The Upper Florida Aquifer that we rely on now would not suffice to meet our needs,” he said.
Anderson said the city now can draw up to 35.2 mgd but that allocation can change “if we start seeing environmental harm to minimal flows” in area surface waters.
“From that perspective,” he said, “we may need this (alternate water sources) sooner rather than later.”
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley commended regional water managers for engaging in “a collaborative effort” that “puts us out on the front end instead of being reactionary later on” like the posture the commission has had to adopt regarding traffic issues.
Commissioner Bill Read said the collaborative was created so “we don’t compete with each other” over water and that its plan will create greater flexibility in addressing emergencies and other challenges in allocating water.
“Look at it like a spider web, one central water system. We can turn on the spigot and if Frostproof needs water, Frostproof would have water,” he said. “It’s a long way to fruition at this point.”
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