Local News

Harris, water district reach oral agreement

SEBRING - Water will not be turned off at Country Club Utilities, Greg Harris said after reaching an oral understanding Thursday with Southwest Florida Water Management District. "District staff met with Commissioner Harris this morning to discuss the conservation options we offer public utilities," said SWFWMD Public Information Officer Susanna Martinez Tarokh. "Mr. Harris was very receptive to all the suggestions, and our staff said the meeting was positive." "I assured them there would be a consumption plan within 45 days," Harris said Saturday. Harris, who owns the utility supplying water for Country Club Estates housing edition in west Sebring, agreed: "We talked about all the issues. We have a clear understanding of what we need do. We have common goals of reducing consumption."
Thursday's meeting was a result of an Aug. 7 letter that former SWFWMD Executive Director Blake Guillory sent to Highlands County Administrator June Fisher: "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." "We didn't even talk about that," Harris said Saturday. "That cannot be done. The governor will not allow it." After Thursday's 1.5 hour conversation, Harris said, "They understand my plight better." His plight is that the Country Club Estates have been overwatering their lawns. 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's letter said SWFWMD had "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 didn't sign the consent order on Thursday. However, he felt SWFWMD now genuinely understands his position, and he understands the water management district's goals. The utility's service area is located within SWFWMD's Southern Water Use Caution Area, within which water resources are critical. CCU's "history of noncompliance began over a decade ago. It was originally permitted in December 2002 to pump 106,400 gallons per day," Guillory's letter said. 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." The letter, which wound up in the hands of County Club Estates ratepayers, "got their attention," Harris said. "And that was a good thing." "For the first time in many years, we were under the allowable usage for August," Harris said. Harris has received calls from ratepayers. "They are genuinely concerned. There is a much greater awareness because of that letter. SWFWMD is interested in getting consumption down, as they are all over the state. And I certainly understand that." County Club's residents are allowed to water two days a week, which causes a misconception that they can use as much water as they want, Harris said. What CCUs customers need to understand is that they shouldn't be irrigating at all during one of Highlands rainiest years in memory. "Too much water is bad for grass anyway. It needs to develop longer roots." SWFWMD wanted Harris to convince the county to enforce the district's watering restrictions. "I told them, 'That ain't going to happen. Not a lot of counties that do it." Highlands County doesn't even have a large enough staff to enforce water regulations, he said. CCU will not be allowed to pump more water, Harris said. "Even though I have an engineering study that said I could do that." Did Harris view Guillory's letter as a way to embarrass Harris and bring him to the table. "Yes," Harris said. "I sent 20 letters to the governor and (CFO) Jeff Atwater and (State Sen.) Denise (Grimsley and (State Rep.) Cary (Pigman) and all the congressmen. I said, 'Here's what's happening. I need help." SWFWMD agreed to address CCU ratepayers. "They will be coming to speak to a homeowner's meeting in November. It won't be a scared-straight meeting, but it will be pretty close. And they may come in October too." 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. However, Harris also said he is negotiating to sell the utility to the City of Sebring. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828