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3 Orlando-area lakes new battleground in water source struggle PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Saturday, April 5 2008,0,6610360,print.story
3 Orlando-area lakes new battleground in water-source struggle
David Damron

Sentinel Staff Writer

April 5, 2008

Opening a new front in Florida's water wars, Orange County and St. Cloud are fighting with state officials over proposals to draw water from a trio of lakes in the ecologically sensitive Kissimmee River basin.

The lakes that the two Central Florida governments are seeking to tap into help make up the headwaters for Florida's Everglades. Some environmentalists fear that siphoning from them might hinder billions of dollars in public-restoration projects in the massive South Florida swampland.

As a result, state water managers refused both requests for drawing a combined 12 million gallons of lake water daily, asking each government to wait for studies to show it would cause no harm.

Frustrated local leaders say they're only following state directives to look to rivers and lakes to ease the strain on the Floridan Aquifer.

Orange County recently set aside a $1 million war chest to fight the battle over lakes Hart and Mary Jane in southeast Orange. St. Cloud, meanwhile, is seeking to draw water from East Lake Tohopekaliga just south of the Orange lakes.

Environmentalists say the legal fights waste taxpayer funds that could be better spent on conservation efforts and further erode shaky accords on regional water sharing.

'Battle lines'

"They've chosen to draw battle lines," said Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon of Florida, an environmental group. "Their action is the antithesis of the cooperation we need. They want to go to war and spend money on lawyers."

Lee conceded, however, that a key problem is the mixed signals being sent by the state. The St. Johns River Water Management District based in Palatka is more open to drawing water from rivers and lakes, he said.

But the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach is taking a more cautious approach. It's the South Florida district that Orange and St. Cloud are challenging.

The fight mirrors a dispute between Central and Northeast Florida over drawing water from the north-flowing St. Johns River. Jacksonville and several nearby communities are teaming up against that proposal, saying it would harm the river and its wildlife.

In the latest conflict,Orange County wants to draw 7 million gallons a day from canals tied to lakes Hart and Mary Jane in southeast Orange. It would mainly go to supply the Orlando Utilities Commission with water for its new power-plant-cooling tower due to open in 2010.

In refusing Orange's permit, South Florida district officials said it's too soon to know whether the drawdown would harm the lakes and other nearby wetlands and water bodies. They questioned whether lower-quality water sources are available, such as treated wastewater, to supply the cooling tower and for irrigation needs.

Orange Utilities Director Mike Chandler said that's not what the district said just months ago.

"You told us there's water here," Chandler said. "Now you're saying there's no water."

Orange County, which serves about 180,000 customers, is just one of the regional utilities that pumps nearly a combined half-billion gallons a day from underground.

Looking for sources

But regulators warn that by 2013, different sources must be tapped. That's why local governments were told to look to the Kissimmee River basin and, to the north, the St. Johns River.

"This is the direction we were pointed in," said Todd Swingle, St. Cloud's utility director.

St. Cloud wants about 5 million gallons a day from East Lake Tohopekaliga, mainly for irrigation. District officials refused the request, and like Orange, St. Cloud is asking for a state hearing to overturn the decision.District officials say they have not misled local governments about where to get future water. Instead, Orange and St. Cloud, along with other major regional utilities, agreed last year to work together on future needs and wait for research on how much can be safely drawn from the basin, they said.

There is a bigger picture at stake, district officials say.

It's vital to ensure the Kissimmee River Restoration Project, a $578 million partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is not hurt by lake withdrawals, they say. That system flows south to Lake Okeechobee and on to the Everglades, where a separate restoration effort is costing billions of dollars.

"Orange County is an entity that seems confused" about the process, South Florida district officials said in a statement on the lake permit.

David Damron can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 407-420-5311.
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Last Updated ( Saturday, April 5 2008 )
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