Water fight may end up in court
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
CITRUS HILLS -- A long-standing dispute concerning the alleged excessive water use at Citrus Hills' Skyview golf course and hundreds of surrounding homes could be heading to the courts, the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board has decided.
Unable to reach an agreement in which Citrus Hills would voluntarily pay fines for the alleged overuse -- totaling 138-million gallons over 21/2 years -- Swiftmud's governing board voted Tuesday to take the matter to an administrative hearing officer.
If the hearing officer finds in favor of Swiftmud, the district could ask a Circuit Court to impose a $28,293 fine and a $250 enforcement fee against Citrus Hills.
"They were out of compliance for a significant amount of time -- a blatant amount of usage being out of compliance," Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. "When we notified them of the violation, not only did they not decrease their usage, they increased their usage before they had permission to increase their usage."
But Citrus Hills attorney Eric Abel said the problem is with a meter that gave faulty readings of water use amounts and the water used to create a 20-million gallon lake at the Skyview golf course. Abel said Swiftmud granted a surface water permit for the lake but now wants to penalize Citrus Hills for using the water to fill it.
"We're still trying to figure out where the discrepancy is and show them our side of it," Abel said Wednesday. "We're positive we'll have an amicable solution once they understand the situation better."
Swiftmud records show that Citrus Hills exceeded its pumping permit from September 1998 to April 2001, with water use spiking in the months after Swiftmud issued a notice of violation last November.
The spike coincided with the creation of the Skyview golf course lake over the winter.
At the time, Citrus Hills was allowed to pump an average of 309,500 gallons per day for its Skyview golf course and the surrounding homes. Last winter it was averaging more than a half-million gallons of water use per day, according to Swiftmud records.
Citrus Hills avoided a fine last November by agreeing to bring its water use into compliance. With its golf course doubling in size and the neighboring landscape growing from 41 acres to 230 acres since the last permit modification in March 1998, Citrus Hills asked Swiftmud to increase its water-pumping permit.
Swiftmud agreed in April to triple the permitted water use to 929,400 gallons per day, but in the meantime Citrus Hills had continued to use more water than its old permit allowed, according to Swiftmud records.
Swiftmud believes Citrus Hills should pay a fine for continuing to overpump after it had agreed to come into compliance. But Abel said Citrus Hills should not be penalized for creating the Swiftmud-approved golf course lake or for having a faulty water meter.
A wiring defect in the Citrus Hills' main water meter caused the high -- and Abel says inaccurate -- water use figures that Swiftmud cites. The meter was replaced in April.
"It would just report gallons flowing, even if you turned the electricity to the pump off," Abel said. "It would just report random numbers."
Citrus Hills' Skyview golf course was one of four golf courses featured in a Times report last December after it received violation notices for pumping more water than Swiftmud allowed.
Another golf course in that report, El Diablo Golf and Country Club in Citrus Springs, agreed earlier this month to pay an $18,754 fine and $250 enforcement fee for overpumping from February 2000 to June 2001.
El Diablo's permit allowed it to use an average of 245,400 gallons per day, but it used double that amount over the summer of 2000. The golf course later reined in its water use, exceeding its permit by just 1 percent this June.
Also cited last November for overpumping, Black Diamond Ranch scaled back its water use within the 30-day compliance period and avoided fines.
The Inverness Golf and Country Club has come into compliance, too, Molligan said. Swiftmud agreed in September to increase that golf course's pumping permit from 151,400 to 211,000 gallons per day, to better meet its water needs, he said.
Inverness Golf and Country Club is also looking into using treated wastewater to irrigate its fairways, which would greatly reduce its reliance on fresh groundwater, according to a letter that country club board member E.L. Spires Jr. sent to the city of Inverness this month.
Spires wrote that he has been "aggressively pursuing grants and loan funding for piping and ponds" to bring reuse to the golf course, which would "reduce our drawing from our shrinking aquifer."
The county's plans to expand the Inverness Airport include upgrades to the city's neighboring wastewater treatment plant, eliminating the need for the large spray field on U.S. 41 S because the reclaimed water can be used to irrigate lawns or golf courses elsewhere.
Swiftmud supports the country club's quest for reuse and does not foresee any more problems with the golf course's pumping permit, Molligan said.
"We're continuing to monitor them," he said, "but we're not expecting any enforcement action."
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