News And Updates
Published By: heraldtribune.com
By NICOLA M. WHITE
THE TAMPA TRIBUNE
TALLAHASSEE — Between decades of farming, phosphate mining and plain old turning on the faucet, residents almost tapped dry the water resources of eight counties in Southwest Florida.
Now, state and local officials are taking critical steps to correct almost a century of overuse.
Wednesday, the House Environmental Preservation committee moved a bill that would allow the Southwest Florida Water Management District to embark on its biggest ever project to raise water levels, clean rivers and build reservoirs in what the district calls the Southern Water Use Caution Area.
The region spans 5,100 miles, starting south of State Road 60 in Hillsborough County and includes DeSoto, Hardee, Manatee and Sarasota counties as well as sections of Polk, Highlands and Charlotte counties.
Water is a precious natural resource, but it is also a crucial resource for a growing state.
"Water is a really strong economic driver for the region and the state," said Colleen Thayer, legislative affairs representative for the water management district, which is known as Swiftmud. "By doing this initiative, we're not only restoring systems to where they once were, but also in the process, you're creating a sustainable water supply for a growing region."
The problem did not appear overnight, and neither will the solution. The water management district expects the project, which is dubbed the West-Central Florida Water Restoration Action Plan, to last until 2025.
It also will not be free.
Over the next 17 years, the district and local partners such as county governments and agricultural organizations plan to spend $1.8 billion.
Officials hope one third of that money will come from state or federal coffers.
This year, Gov. Charlie Crist has set aside $25 million for the project -- the most earmarked for any project that would affect the Tampa Bay area. It is a tough fiscal year, with lawmakers talking about hacking away $3 billion from the state's spending plan, but Swiftmud officials are hopeful that the funding will go through.
Wednesday's positive vote from the House environmental preservation committee showed support for the project, but the bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, and in the Senate by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, does not have an appropriations figure attached to it. Allocating the money is up to the governor and both legislative chambers as a whole, Thayer said.
The project will include:
Working with farmers to tap water resources besides ground water, such as by helping them build reservoirs.
Connecting the pipes and pumps restoring minimum levels for lakes in the Lake Wales Ridge in Polk and Highlands counties.
Reducing the amount of nitrogen flowing into Charlotte Harbor.
Expanding reservoirs so counties can collect and save more water during the rainy season.
Restoring the minimum flow to the Upper Peace River.
All told, the project would offset the use of 50 million gallons of water daily. That is enough water to fill 50 10-foot-deep pools the length of football fields, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.