CLERMONT – If there’s a clear way to help boost business growth in South Lake County, Ray San Fratello said, it might be with ribs.
“All the partners are committed to try to make this work,” San Fratello said. “We need now to formalize a plan, an executable plan, and say ‘Here’s how much it will cost.’ “
When he says ribs, San Fratello, the president of the South Lake Chamber of Commerce, isn’t talking about the kind people normally find at a barbecue restaurant. What he means is something entirely different: what’s known as rapid infiltration basins – or RIBS. They’re land basins created to collect and recycle water for use in landscaping and other outdoor projects.
“Orlando and Orange County have been sending a lot of water into the RIBS in our area because they have a recharge capacity,” San Fratello said.
And what’s most important about that is business growth, because starting next year, new businesses coming into South Lake County will no longer be able to get a permit to draw from the Florida aquifer. One of the world’s most productive aquifers, it’s under all of Florida and parts of coastal Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.
What the business community is now working on developing is the South Lake Regional Water Initiative, an endeavor supported by the South Lake cities of Clermont, Minneola, Groveland, Mascotte and Montverde, as well as Lake County and the Lake County Water Authority.
The goal is to find a regional solution in the critical areas of reclaimed water distribution, minimum flows and levels of the region’s lakes and rivers, alternative water supplies, and conservation.
And ironically, San Fratello said, it started because of the rapid growth going on at the height of the housing market boom between 2004 and 2007 – a boom that no longer exists, but had a clear impact on those who monitor the region’s water supply and the aquifer.
San Fratello said it started when the Chamber formed an economic development committee, made up of members of the Chamber and representatives of the five South Lake County cities and the Metro Orlando Economic Development Council, to look for ways to bring more business growth to the area. That would include the South Lake County section of Four Corners on U.S. 27.
“We’ve been looking for ways to transform our economy and bring in high paying jobs that are 21st century jobs,” San Fratello said. “We recognized the notion of working together as a region here in South Lake, and the cities working together because our needs are similar — but divergent. One of the big questions down the road will be, how do we serve our businesses?”
One of the most significant challenges in the future, they recognized, was going to be water.
“In late June we deiced to bring in water management groups to meet with us,” he said. “We started zeroing in on this notion that by 2013, you will no longer be able to tap into the aquifer.”
In response to rapid development, the St. Johns River Water Management District issuing an order that starting in 2013, communities and municipalities would no longer be able to pull a permit to get water from the aquifer. That means businesses would have to find another source of water other than tapping into the aquifer.
“That’s an edict that St. Johns put out several years ago when things were really booming, that the aquifer was being stressed to the maximum, and by 2013 if things were continuing this way, you will no longer be able to come pull a permit to get water from the aquifer,” San Fratello said.
Without the ability to get water from a fresh and reliable source, he added, new businesses would likely look elsewhere to set up shop.
“You might have a piece of property that might be zoned properly for certain kinds of businesses to come into, but you might find out the water resources might not be available to them,” he said. “Without a good source of water in the future, you’re not going to be able to grow.”
That’s when the cities in South Lake County began exploring the idea of using recycled water as a viable option.
“What happened with our group is we stated focusing in on that, and decided to have this summit to talk about how South Lake communities can work with the St. Johns Water Management District to take advantage of reused water in the Conserve 2 area, a big property to the south and east of highway 50.”
This 2,000 acre undeveloped property includes the RIBS, or basins used for collecting recycled water that had been brought in from Orange County.
“With big projects like the Horizon West development in Orange County, they felt they would be sending a lot more of this recycled water to these RIBS,” San Fratello said. “The city of Clermont said ‘We’d love to purchase this recycled water,’ the county wants to help out because a lot of the land is in the county, and the St. Johns Water Management District loves this because it shows regional cooperation. A bunch of these RIBS are in these properties now, and Orange County has been sending water to them for years. Compared to desalination, it’s a heck of a lot less expensive.”
Desalination is the process that removes salt and other minerals from saline water.
On Feb. 9, elected officials from South Lake County met with Hans Tanzler, the new executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District at Lake-Sumter Community College’s Clermont campus. Hosted by the Chamber’s Economic Development Committee, they discussed these collaborations among the cities over the past nine months, with an emphasis placed on cementing future economic viability and growth opportunities for businesses in the South Lake region by ensuring a sustainable water supply.
Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks used the opportunity to discuss the new South Lake Regional Water Initiative, and he said Tanzler liked the concept.
“Mr. Tanzler noted this is exactly the kind of regional cooperation we need here, and put a new face on the district, with a clear message that he and staff were here to listen and help us ensure that Lake County continues to grow and prosper, and that Lake County will be open for business well into the future,” Parks said.
San Fratello said there’s also some hope that, with the slowdown in residential development since the recession set in, the deadline set by the St. Johns Water Management District might get extended by several years.
“2013 is looming out there, less than a year from now,” he said. “Some people are saying, ‘Things have slowed down so much, maybe 2013 isn’t your drop dead year.’ We’re talking about reasonable growth here now, not the crazy runaway grown we had here years ago.”
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