Local News

Greg Harris: Country Club's water won't be shut off

SEBRING - Will the water be cut off at Country Club Utilities?
Maybe, says a letter from Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"Without a substantial reduction in water use, it is possible that the customers of the utility... may experience an increase in rates and/or an interruption in service," said an Aug. 7 letter from Blake Guillory, SWFWMD's executive director to Highlands County Administrator June Fisher.
"They will not shut the water off," said Greg Harris, who owns the water system for the upscale housing edition along CR 635 in west Sebring.
The utility's service area is located within the Southern Water Use Caution Area, within which water resources are critical, Guillory's letter said. The utility's "history of noncompliance began over a decade ago. It was originally permitted in December 2002 to pump 106,400 gallons per day."
However, Guillory wrote, CCU "has consistently exceeded permitted quantities, resulting in repeated outreach efforts by (SWFWMD) staff. The utility's permitted quantities were increased to an average daily rate of 183,000 gallons per day in October 2006."
Harris did not dispute those numbers, but that was the year a drought began in South Florida. Annual rainfall decreased 40 percent in that year. Harris said usage has decreased this year, one of the wettest on record.
Guillory's letter asked Fisher to "contact Greg Harris and urge him to address these longstanding violations with the district."
Did Fisher do that?
"No," Rybinski said. "The county does not have any jurisdiction in this," spokeswoman Gloria Rybinski said.
However, SWFWMD Public Information Officer Susanna Martinez Tarokh emailed Wednesday, "The county requested a meeting with the district, which took place this morning. Members of the executive team met with the chair and county administrator to discuss how they may be able to help with compliance... The county has contacted the public service commission regarding options with rates. The district will assist with educational outreach with residents."
Harris said he has talked with residents "until I was blue in the face" about decreasing their usage. "I've said all along that we are going to get fined."
Guillory said SWFWMD has "issued one last consent order to the utility for its consideration on July 5, which requires the utility to prepare a written compliance plan detailing how it will come into compliance with the permit, as well as pay penalties and costs totaling $83,949."
Harris forwarded Guillory's letter to his customers along with his own on Monday. He said Guillory's letter is, in some ways, a good thing because it may get the attention of his customers.
Because CCU's rates are so low - 70 cents per 1,000 gallons compared with the $3.23 district average - residents are not encouraged to conserve. Harris said he has asked the Public Service Commission for a rate increase. Although he said he hasn't specified a figure, he thinks 30 percent should be a minimum.
He hopes some customers will dig their own irrigation wells, which SWFWMD will not regulate along with CCU.
In the meantime, Harris said, his attorney is communicating with SWFWMD's attorney.
Guillory, by the way, will be on the job at SWFWMD for another week, then he is taking a vacation and beginning a new job as executive director of South Florida Water Management District in September.