Utilities balk, could fight over Keystone Heights Lakes elevation project
A state agency’s attempt to protect water levels in the narrowed Keystone Heights lakes in Clay County is pushed back by utilities, including JEA, which could challenge plans that rely on pumping on Monday. of water through a 17 mile pipeline.
JEA likes the St. Johns River Water Management District’s plan to build the pipeline from Black Creek, but fears it will be stalled by paying an “unfair” bill of $ 13 million.
“While we are supporting the project … we have to do it with the customers in mind and considering the financial impact,” CEO Jay Stowe told his board before he gives him a free hand last week to challenge the water agency (if necessary). on a rule proposed to safeguard water levels in Lake Brooklyn and Lake Geneva.
The utility discussed with district management employees the rule and a strategy to raise the lake level. But on Monday or Tuesday, he will decide whether to officially challenge the plan through the Florida Administrative Hearings Division, said Wayne Young, JEA vice president for environmental services.
“Yes, it’s imminent,” Young said of the decision.
JEA obtains water for approximately 350,000 homes and businesses in the Floridan Aquifer, which soaks in water through recharge areas like the one around Lake Brooklyn.
The management district controls permits to take water from the aquifer and in March suggested that JEA could agree to a cost-sharing agreement on certain expenses for the district’s pipeline plan, called the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project.
The state agency had budgeted $ 48 million for the pipeline, but last year decided to end a two-year struggle to begin construction by adding a water filtering system that one says consultant, could cost around an additional $ 15 million.
The cost-sharing agreement drafted by the district said that JEA’s permit “requires consideration of impacts on water resources, including lakes in Brooklyn and Geneva.”
The district has reworked a rule establishing “minimum flows and levels”, or MFL, the two lakes will need to be healthy again after years of docks and lakeside homes looked only on dry sand. because the water receded as the levels fell.
The Black Creek Project would pump up to 10 million gallons per day from the tannin-stained creek to an artificial wetland where it would be filtered to lighten the color before flowing into Alligator Creek, a small waterway that feeds Lake Brooklyn in the top of a chain. some lakes. The project could raise typical Brooklyn Lake water levels by nearly 10 feet, water management officials told their own board of directors at its meeting in April.
The agreement states that the Black Creek project “will be able to provide sufficient water to meet MFLs over the next 20 years” and that the district and the JEA would engage in cost sharing “taking into account mutual benefits which would ensue ”.
But JEA and other utilities wondered how the management district decided on costs corresponding to the impacts of the utility.
Young said JEA’s assessment of its impact suggested that $ 2.2 million might be proportional, but certainly not $ 13 million, a figure he said state officials discussed as a possibility, but have not written in the agreement, which is only a draft.
The management district looked at JEA’s projected water use through 2035 to estimate that it should cover 17% of the recovery in the lakes, agency spokeswoman Teresa Monson said. The cost of building the pipeline and maintaining it for 20 years is estimated at $ 81 million, she said.
Management District staff emphasized that utilities are not required to contribute to the Black Creek Project, but that environmental impacts must be addressed in some way, whether by conserving or reducing the amount. use of water services or by finding other ways not to overload the aquifer.
Young said JEA wanted to be a part of the Black Creek Project, but wanted time to make sure he was okay with the math of the management district.
Some of North Florida’s larger utilities have done the same.
The management district cost-sharing idea “left a lot of questions about how the costs of participation were calculated,” Jeremy Johnston, executive director of the Clay County Utility Authority, told the Board of Trustees. management district at its meeting last month.
“We can see several logical and financial reasons for participating in the Black Creek project,” Johnston told the district council, but said that in order to get his own agency’s board approval, “I need a plan. reasonable in hand to answer their questions. “
Leaders from JEA, the Clay County Utility Authority, St. Johns County Utility Department and Gainesville Regional Utilities signed a joint letter in April asking management district staff to delay submitting the recovery strategy or public notice of the MFL project to the water management board for 60 days.
Moving forward without further consideration, they said, “would compromise our ability to work together in a way that results in a successful Black Creek recovery program and project.”
But the District Management Board was not impressed and accepted the Keystone Heights area folks’ requests to move on.
“The people of [Lakes] Brooklyn and Geneva, the lakers, needed and wanted to be relieved of this constant drought that they have known since I have been a member of this board of directors, which has lasted for 13 years, ”Doug Bournique said last month. , Member of the Board of Directors.
“It was nothing new for the utility companies,” he said. “It’s time they dealt with, I think, a very fair and reasonable step to take. … The people of Geneva and Brooklyn deserve it. “
The state agency has scheduled a final public hearing on the recovery for May 11, saying it would give utilities and anyone another chance to voice their concerns.
But Young said under Florida law, the April 13 vote triggered a three-week countdown for utilities to file petitions challenging the management district’s actions.
The decision to fight comes now.