St. Cloud started exploring ways to make water bills cheaper for residents last year.
But that research seems to be on hold now as city leaders consider looming improvement costs and nearly $90 million of debt.
A bigger issue of finding a new water source is also on the horizon.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) estimates St. Cloud will reach its currently permitted capacity in about seven years if it doesn’t pick a new alternative soon.
Exploring ways to make water bills cheaper
On Jan. 17, a consultant discussed how the city could adjust its rate structure so residents who use less water could save money.
Currently, water bills for St. Cloud average 30 to 40 percent more a month than Kissimmee residents who receive service through Toho Water Authority, according to Andy Woodcock, a consultant from Tetra Tech, an engineering services company, who said if the city wants to charge people who use less water less money, they need to make it up from higher consumers.
Savings could be anywhere from $1.53 to just over $3 for residents using 3,000 gallons of water or less per month, Woodcock said Jan. 17. But St. Cloud would need to recoup about $600,000 a year from higher-use customers.
One reason the city’s rates trend higher, according to Woodcock and other officials, is due to the size of St. Cloud’s water and wastewater departments.
Former Toho Water Authority executive Brian Wheeler explained that Kissimmee’s large number of commercial customers – including major hotels – help Toho keep its rates lower for residents.
Smaller departments often charge more because they have similar costs but less revenue than big operations, Woodcock said.
Does $1.53 really make a difference?
But other water issues loom for St. Cloud, prompting Councilmember Linette Matheny to wonder if it’s a good time to adjust the city’s rate structure.
St. Cloud currently has about $90 million in debt from its water and wastewater departments, according to a finance staff member at the meeting.
Making a final decision on how St. Cloud will provide water to residents in the future is also on the horizon.
This comes as the water-related infrastructure continues to age.
St. Cloud is already part of a multi-utility partnership planning to tap into Cypress Lake as a reliable water source. The estimated capital outlay for that project is about $50 million – and bids haven’t even gone out yet.
“These are big, big numbers,” Matheny said. “They’re scary numbers to me.”
Matheny wondered if the proposed rate changes were even big enough to help residents.
“Does $1.53 really make a difference to someone on their bill?” she asked. “Or in two years, are we going to have to raise the rates and people are going to be even more upset with us?”
Is St. Cloud running out of water?
No - St. Cloud isn’t “running out of water.”
It’s running out of affordable ground water.
For years, St. Cloud and other utilities have enjoyed inexpensive water from what’s known as the Upper Florida Aquifer, which can provide about 850 million gallons per day to the Central Florida region, according to SFWMD Intragovernmental Representative Bill Graf.
This plentiful access gave rise to grass-heavy lawns and landscaping that requires regular watering.
But in 2015, SFWMD put out a comprehensive regional supply plan with two other management districts describing how much water can be pumped from the upper aquifer without causing environmental impacts to surface features like wetlands and natural springs.
The report set sustainable limits for the Central Florida region, Graf said.
But now, the Upper Floridan Aquifer is reaching its capacity to be withdrawn from, requiring entities like St. Cloud to develop alternative water sources within the next 10 years.
The solution may lie much deeper (about 1,500 feet below ground), in a layer of earth known as the Lower Floridan, which can provide the region with water and less environmental impact.
The downside? It’s much more expensive to drill a well that deep and it doesn’t produce water as pure as the ground water everyone is used to, Graf said.
About 20 percent of Lower Floridan water is not useable due to higher levels of chloride and other impurities.
Yet, it seems to be the most viable option out there at this point since other solutions are even more expensive, can’t provide as much output or has technology still in development, according to Graf and other experts.
What is Cypress Lake?
Cypress Lake is really a series of 11 wells that will be constructed near the lake, which is southwest of St. Cloud.
The city has been permitted to tap into the Cypress Lake Wells Field along with other entities, including Toho Water, Reedy Creek Improvement District, Polk County and Orange County.
Members of this co-op have already chipped in money for permitting, research and environmental studies that must take place before construction can begin.
St. Cloud has invested approximately $3 million into this process, according to the city’s Public Service Administrator DiAnna Rawleigh.
The estimated cost for St. Cloud’s share of bidding, construction and purchasing land is between $50 and $60 million.
Though it’s important for St. Cloud to explore all options for future water sources, Cypress Lake is already in the works and offers the city an immediate solution, Rawleigh and Tetra Tech officials said.
If St. Cloud does not buy land with the other entities, its permit will likely be given to someone else. St. Cloud would need to find another reliable water source that meets SFWMD standards on its own - without co-op cost savings.
And simply putting a cap on future development to make water last longer isn’t really an option either, Rawleigh said, since another nearby district may then be given St. Cloud’s permit.
“The city isn’t entitled to its own little water bubble,” Rawleigh said. “If it doesn’t use the water, someone else will.”
Time is ticking for St. Cloud to make a decision, as land purchase details are likely to take place in early summer, according to Rawleigh.
Whether St. Cloud will pursue the project on its own or join a larger water authority like Toho is another issue entirely.
Could St. Cloud join Toho?
Mayor Nathan Blackwell agreed with many of Matheny’s concerns about mounting costs and Cypress Lake.
He suggested that St. Cloud explore joining Toho Water Authority instead of continuing to operate its own water and wastewater departments.
He proposed conducting a feasibility study to gather all the facts.
“Why would we not look at every alternative if we’re really serious about reducing the cost,” Blackwell said.
Everyone agreed to get estimates on how much a feasibility study would cost.
City Attorney Dan Mantzaris said that if the council chooses to pursue a partnership with Toho down the road, the transition might be easier than people think.
“You may not have to re-invent the wheel if you’re looking at Toho as your option,” he said. “You would already have historical information about how Kissimmee dealt with many of the issues you’ve looked at today.”
St. Cloud can either buy water in bulk from Cypress Lake, or it could join another water authority like Toho and enter a “pay as you go” system, according to Tetra Tech consultant Gary Revoir.
Buying from someone else would be about 10 percent more expensive in the long run, but could prevent the city from having a major capital outlay.
“If you try to build your own mini-Cypress Lake for St. Cloud, the cost-savings may not offset the cost savings from an economy of scale,” said Revoir, referring to a company like Toho. “You have issues beyond Cypress Lake that you have to look at.”
But if St. Cloud joined Toho – which was born from the city of Kissimmee’s water department – it could have less of a say over things like water rates in the future, according to Rawleigh.
“You go from being in charge of the entire operation to having one or two people on the Toho board,” Rawleigh said after the meeting. “You give up a lot of control when you join a bigger entity.”
The Jan. 17 water workshop lasted nearly two hours.
By the end, the council acknowledged it is still part of the Cypress Lake partnership project, but also instructed staff to explore other alternative water supplies.
They will also research possibly reducing the St. Cloud Water Department service area and get cost estimates related to a Toho-partnership feasibility study.