County Commission offers full support for Peace River Authority surface water initiative to expand extra drinking water capacity in coming years

Sarasota County could end up selling to other customers water it receives beyond its needs

This chart shows the projections for water demand in the coming decades for the customers of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Sarasota County commissioners unanimously have offered their support for a regional surface water treatment project that could net the county up to an extra 17 million gallons per day through 2039.

The county is projected to need another 12 million gallons per day (mgd) by 2033, Brooke Bailey, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, told the board members during their regular meeting on March 19. “We have a lot of growth coming,” she noted.

However, whatever amount of water the county ends up with that it does not need could be sold to other customers, she pointed out.

The county gets the majority of its water supply from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, she reminded the commissioners. That total is 15.06 mgd.

Already, she continued, the commissioners had approved the purchase of an additional 4 mgd from the Authority starting in 2028, to ensure the county has a sufficient supply of potable water.

The county’s Carlton Water Treatment Facility in Venice has been permitted to produce 12 mgd, thanks to upgrades completed last year, Bailey noted.

The county also purchases water from Manatee County, she added. Sarasota County staff was able to negotiate an extension of the Manatee contract through March 31, 2028, former Public Utilities Department Director Mike Mylett — who retired in November 2023 — told the board members last fall. (For 2022 — the latest year for which information is available — the Manatee contract provided 19% of Sarasota County’s drinking water.)

Bailey also reminded the board members on March 19 that, because of the long timelines involved in creating additional water supply, the Peace River authority has a seven-year planning window.

The Authority’s members include Charlotte, DeSoto and Manatee counties, along with Sarasota County. The City of North Port also is a customer, Bailey said. For the five local governments, she continued, the projection is that a total of 22.57 mgd in extra water supply will be  needed by 2044.

Already, she explained, the Peace River Authority is working on a surface water supply expansion project, which would provide an extra 18 mgd to meet its customers’ demands through 2040. DeSoto County leaders already have requested 1 mgd from that new supply, she noted.

This graphic shows details about Sarasota County’s drinking water supply and future demand. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A county staff memo included in the commission’s agenda packet for its March 19 meeting said that construction of that project is scheduled to begin in January 2025, with completion anticipated in January 2028. The total cost of that initiative has been estimated at $504 million, the memo added. “The Authority has secured $133 [million] of grant funding,” the memo continued, “leaving an estimated project cost of $370 [million] to be paid by the utility customers.”

Sarasota County would have to fund about $248 million — 67% — of the remaining expense of that project to ensure that it can receive the extra 12 mgd per day that staff knows customers will need by 2031, the memo said. During her presentation to the commissioners, Bailey characterized the county’s expense as “close to” $250 million.

The Authority also is working on plans for a brackish groundwater reverse osmosis project, Bailey told the commissioners. However, completion of that initiative would yield a total of only 8 mgd more water through 2033, Bailey pointed out.

Both the surface water expansion project and the reverse osmosis initiative will have to be pursued, Bailey noted. The question is which will begin first.

No grant funding has been secured for the reverse osmosis project, she added. Thus, Bailey emphasized, the county would end up having to invest about $249 million in that undertaking, but the county would receive only an extra 7 mgd per day upon its completion. Thus, the county would have to pay for another 5 mgd from the surface water expansion project.

Bailey estimated that if the commissioners agreed to support construction of the brackish water reverse osmosis project first, the county would end up paying approximately $100 million extra — “in today’s dollars.”

Paying for the extra capacity for the future, regardless of the source, “will impact rates” for customers, she also noted. She and her staff will work with a consulting firm that the county has used in the past to research the potential use of impact fee revenue to help cover the additional expense, Bailey said. Part of that effort will be a focus on how other local government bodies in the region are increasing impact fees, she added.

Impact fees are paid by developers of new residential construction.

This chart provides details about the two projects that the Peace River Authority plans to pursue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Surface water project preferred

Commissioner Neil Rainford was the first board member to offer comments after Bailey completed her presentation.

Rainford asked for assurance that Sarasota County could sell any of the water that it would receive and did not need as a result of the completion of the surface water expansion initiative.

“That’s accurate,” Bailey responded.

“We know they’re going to need [the water] later,” Rainford said of the other Peace River Authority customers. Therefore, he continued, it seemed more cost-effective for the commissioners to offer support for the surface water project to take precedence over the reverse osmosis initiative.

Each year, Sarasota County’s water demand grows by approximately 1 million gallons per day, Bailey said. Therefore, the county is not expected to need the full, additional 17 mgd until about 25 to 27 years from now, she added.

This graphic, included in the agenda for the April 3 meeting of the board of directors of the Peace River Authority, provides more details about Sarasota County’s water demand. Image courtesy of the Authority

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger told Bailey, “It seems quite obvious [that the surface water initiative] is the way to go.” Moreover, he noted, he understands that it is easier to treat surface water for customer use than to deal with a reverse osmosis process.

Cutsinger also said that he agreed with Rainford: “I’d rather be someone that has [water] to sell …”

Commissioner Joe Neunder, who explained that he is “a reverse osmosis customer in the City of Venice,” concurred that problems do arise with that process. Like Cutsinger, Neunder said he believes the surface water project “is the best option for us to move forward.”

Chair Michael Moran also agreed with Rainford and Cutsinger: “Erring on the side of more water I don’t think is too much of a risk.” Many communities throughout the state are going to need more water as the years go by, he added.

Cutsinger ended up making the motion to approve the county’s support for the surface water initiative, with the intent of being able to acquire an extra 12 mgd after its completion. The county would net the additional 17 mgd if other Authority partners decline to participate in the venture.