Water: A Most Precious Resource By Jeff Roslow

Water: A Most Precious Resource
By Jeff Roslow

Cities like Winter Haven recognize the importance of water.

In a state known worldwide for its beaches and oceanic views how could the Disney Corp. think by locating in the middle of the state, it would be successful? 

Lake Howard in Winter Haven in on the southern chain of lakes. Photo by Sergio Cruz.
Lake Howard in Winter Haven in on the southern chain of lakes. Photo by Sergio Cruz.

Part of that is because all of Florida relies on water. There are 7,700 lakes and its importance to the communities they are in means as much to them as beaches do for the coastal towns. Viable water is necessary for tourism, development, quality of life and making sure it stays that way. That picture is drawn in Winter Haven where there is 91 miles of shoreline, 24 canal connected lakes and 1,400 land parcels. 

“The lakefront dining and waterfront in the middle of the state, that’s one side. The other side is tourism and lifestyle,” says Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katie Worthington. “From the economic side it is twofold. We are at the forefront on how to conserve and use water intelligently despite the fact that everywhere in Florida there is a water crisis.”

Sapphire Necklace

“When I think of water in Central Florida, it’s lakes and streams and rivers,” says Polk State College professor Rachelle Selser. “My family grew up on the Kissimmee River and on the coast. We did a lot of boating, canoeing, water skiing.”

The City of Winter Haven’s plan, Sapphire Necklace, for a decade has directed development around the infrastructure for managing water. The initiative deals with development’s potential impacts. For instance the CSX Integrated Center will create 8,500 jobs and generate about $10 million activity, but flood protection has to be provided that has a beneficial use for the water, the plan said. 

“Things weren’t going to change if we stayed the same,” says Mike Britt, who primarily developed the Sapphire Necklace. “At that time (in 2008) the city went through a visioning process. One of the primary statements was, number one, water resources. I adopted a new job description. I was put in charge of water for the community.” 

Britt, now the Assistant Utility Services Department Director for Winter Haven, went on a quest when he was in the Natural Resources director that lasted four years to change how people in Winter Haven thought of water. 

“What people need to now is that for business and future growth, there is a need for water. People have to understand that connection. That is the stepping stone,” Britt said. 

“You have to come to a point where we can reach an understanding. There’s been friction in the past with our goals versus the state’s goals. We have to make a framework,” Britt said. “It’s an uphill battle.” 

Five years ago the Florida Legislature gave Winter Haven $60,000 for the Sapphire Necklace which would begin an experimental aquifer recharge system to increase water levels and restore Winter Haven’s lakes. 

Then Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said this solution will lead water protection and supply. 

“As a result the Peace River Water Cooperative plan was modeled after our 2010 plan,” Britt, who sits on that county panel, says. 

What this does is “develop an umbrella that integrates this for the community’s goals,” he said. 

Making water management part of an official plan has put Winter Haven in the front seat in water preservation both for development and for the quality of life. The plan also looks into the idea that communities in the area look at Winter Haven for supply. This plan helps the state’s Floridan Aquifer, one of two in the state. The other, Bicayne in South Florida, is smaller. The aquifer is like a sponge and water can move freely. The Floridan aquifer is 82,000 square miles underground in Florida and part of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. 

Experts say there is not enough water in the Upper Floridan Aquifer to meet population growth by 2040. The Polk Regional Water Cooperative budgeted $23 million to study the feasibility of using salt water in the Lower Floridan Aquifer to meet this future demand.

For fun, living and economic      development 

In other aspects involving water, Worthington says making community events often involve the the lakes. There is the yearly Christmas Boating parade, monthly concerts and water ski shows. How to develop these and other areas is focused upon before doing it. 

“We spoke a lot about water focused events at a development roundtable,” Worthington says. “We had architects, construction, engineers that meet monthly. We are dedicated to water.”

Selser adds, “It’s an economic driver. People are driven to the waterfront and the resources have to be there because the wildlife is inclusive. Water connects us all and we seek to be near it. Water is life, it really does weave in and out of our daily lives, economic development and concerns for the natural environment.” 

“We want to balance sustainability and business,” Worthington says. 

“One cause for concern in last 10-15 years, planning services departments, planning for best interest of the needs for county,” Selser says. She said it provides people with a back door dock and can refill the aquifer. 

“So there is no net loss when developing or destroying a wetland area,” she says. “Restore some area to offset loses, filter out nutrients and pollutants from stormwater runoff.”

But that has to be communicated, she says, as the state population grows. 

“It seems sometimes we get stagnant retention ponds and now there are hundreds of houses putting fertilizer on lawns and flushing the toilet like we’ve never seen.”

Lake Howard in Winter Haven is on the southern chain of lakes. Photos by Sergio Cruz.

In the time to come, Selser hopes educating the public will help the long-term survival of the resource. “I hope for the future we shift our mindset,” Selser, Friends Of Charlotte Harbor Estuary, Inc. director, says. “We have to recognize our place in the natural system and what we do has an affect on other things. Water is all connected to water and water resources.” 

Britt adds, “I retire in two and half years and I hope it can continue without me in the future. Hopefully we can set up signs to move forward when I’m gone. For more info on the city’s endeavors involving water resources visit SustainableWinterHaven.net.