Agriculture Taking its Position as Region Plans to Meet Future Water Needs
Florida is surrounded by water, but, with current resources, it’s not expected to meet future demands for some 1,100 million gallons a day in Central Florida. So government leaders and landowners are attempting to iron out their differences, among the administrative complications that exist within the separate rules of three Water Management Districts, and find solutions.
“It can get so technical that it can be overwhelming. A lot of people are competing for water use,” says Victor Story, Jr., who is representing the Polk County Farm Bureau on the Central Florida Water Initiative’s Steering Committee. “Ag is one of them. We’ve just tried to be sure that we’re at the table and we’re represented and we’re paying attention to things that might affect us.”
AT THE HEART OF AG AND WATER
At the heart of the matter is that ag users can not settle for desalinated water like others can. “Ag has to have really really good water. We want to be sure we’re going to get that quality of water” in order to be able to grow quality food, he explains.
The Polk County Water Cooperative is grappling with how to plan for a projected 118 million gallons per day by 2035, with only 72 million supplied by traditional wells, according to its Summit 2017 report. The first phase of the project involving three sites— a West Polk County wellfield, a Southeast wellfield, and Peace Creek Integrated Water Supply— will cost at least $23 million, half to be funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the balance by cooperative participants.
“These projects take a very long time to permit and come to fruition,” says Chairman George Lindsay, also a Polk County Commissioner. “In the meantime, we’re concentrating on water conservation and making that an element of meeting our needs. We also recognize there has been some progress [reducing daily water usage].”
THE COMMITMENT TO ADDRESS PROBLEMS
The real challenge is Phase 2, with its approximately $617 million price tag. Cooperative Coordinator Gene Health says a new law, the Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act, passed by the legislature this year, was “designed to make sure we coordinate our funding efforts through the legislature with all of our members and those people around Polk County.”
As planning continues, a bright spot is a commitment to address problems. “The biggest highlight regarding water for the state . . . is the continuing commitment by the legislature to fund water projects,” says Charles Shinn, director of government and community affairs for the Gainesville-based Florida Farm Bureau Federation.
“We in agriculture have extremely favorable working relationships right now with all of the state agencies, also environmental protection, and all of the water management districts,” Shinn adds.
This year, the legislature approved a compromise bill calling for a reservoir to reduce runoff from Lake Okeechobee. Discharges to the right and the left “have manifested in widespread algae blooms, public health impacts, and extensive environmental harm to wildlife and the aquatic ecosystem,” the legislation states. “ [. . .] increasing water storage is necessary to reduce the high-volume freshwater discharges from the lake to the estuaries and restore the hydrological connection to the Everglades.”
The original plan would have taken 60,000 acres of “prime productive agricultural land” out of production, Shinn says. “It also upsets the balance of infrastructure down there as far as processing, packing corn, and sugar produced,” he explains. “There is a balance of what is needed to produce and to pack these products.”
“We made the best we could of it. We supported Senate Bill 10 in the end, just because overall it was kind of meeting the goals,” he explains. “We’re concerned any time funds are getting diverted from scientifically proven projects already in the pipeline. We don’t want that to happen.”
In the end, some 3,000 or more acres in private land will be acquired for the project, Shinn points out. Costs were slashed from $4 billion to $800 million.
AT THE TABLE TO WORK ON THE RULES
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is working on a rule that could affect agricultural users through consumptive water use permits. The DEP could potentially place certain requirements upon permit renewal, including reporting requirements that could be a “nightmare for agriculture,” warns Jim Fletcher, a regional water specialist for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Apopka, who chairs a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs steering committee to provide agricultural input.
An August 2 DEP workshop dealt with conservation, with DEP wanting to tie conservation goals to permitting and the ag community wanting to report on goals, he explains.
Small users, who use less than 100,000 gallons a day, generally don’t have to do a lot of reporting, according to Larry Walter, an Alturas grower and rancher who serves on an initiative ag subcommittee. That might be a farmer with a 40-acre grove or a 30-acre blueberry patch. “We’re trying to keep it that way, because that’s the bulk of the users,” Walter adds. Story was hopeful about the outcome. “I think we’re going to be able to work together for everybody’s benefit,” he points out. “We need to be at the table. If not, it’s a big mistake.”
Drought conditions have exacerbated water problems. “The past dry season was the 6th driest in the past 104 years in this area,” says Granville Kinsman, Hydrologic Data Section manager at the SWFWMD in Brooksville. “We saw groundwater, lake levels, and river flow drop very quickly during this period, to levels not seen in about five years.”
Rainy season has helped return groundwater, lake, and stream levels to normal levels. “We still have a 12-month rainfall deficit of four to five inches in this region,” he continues. “Although the water shortage restrictions expired in this region, year-round water conservation measures are still in effect. Florida’s water is a precious, limited resource that should be saved whenever possible.”
MORE ACTIONS AT THE STATE AND FEDERAL LEVEL
Ultimately, the Everglades and the waterways that feed it are vital to Florida’s water supply. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a $766 million restoration project to return the Kissimmee River to a more natural state. Jenn Miller, public affairs specialist for the Corps’ Jacksonville District, says the project is slated for completion in 2020.
A portion of the project in Polk and Osceola counties, known as the C-37 Embankment Armoring construction contract, will be let in the fall. “The contract involves placing one-mile of turf reinforcement mat system and approximately 1.7 miles of riprap along the eastern canal of the Kissimmee River,” Miller says.
The Corps dredged a canal between 1962-71 to reduce flooding in the area after a public outcry. But, it damaged the river floodplain ecosystem. So far, “continuous flow” has been restored to 28 miles of the river, Miller says.
On the federal front, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is revisiting a controversial 2015 “Waters of the United States rule” (WOTUS rule) intended to update the Clean Water Act of 1972. “The definition they used greatly expanded the regulatory authority of the EPA and federal agencies onto private lands,” Shinn says.
The new proposed rule is open to public comment until August 28. It rescinds the 2015 definition, instead relying on the prior definition until the issue is re-evaluated.
“We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses,” says Administrator Scott Pruitt, in announcing the EPA turnaround. “This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent, and collaborative with other agencies and the public.”
PLEASE PLACE IN FACT BOX:
For QR Code #1: Pease place the follow comment on the same page as paragraph 14-15 (begins with: An August 2 DEP Workshop…)
Learn more about DEP rulemaking here: dep.state.fl.us/water/waterpolicy/62-41.htm
For QR Code #2 and #3: Please place these two comments around the area of paragraph 22 (begins with: The new proposed rule…)
To read over and make a comment on the new rule, go to this website: fb.org/advocacy/wotus-your-comments-needed-to-help-epa-ditch-the-rule or https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0203-0001
More information reguarding the rule is available here: federalregister.gov/documents/2017/07/27/2017-13997/definition-of-waters-of-the-united-states-recodification-of-pre-existing-rules.