Water fight pits Mormons against St. Johns district

Church wants cities to pay

Forida Today/August 4, 2009

A legal fight over whether Central Florida utilities must pay Deseret Ranches millions of dollars in fees for drinking water from Taylor Creek Reservoir could stall plans to tap the manmade lake to fuel growth and ease stress on groundwater, wetlands and springs.

Five public utilities, including Cocoa and Titusville, and Deseret itself want 25 million to 40 million daily gallons by 2015 from the 10,000-acre body of water that straddles Orange and Osceola counties.

But the 450-square-mile ranch, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wants the other utilities to pay for the water.

The St. Johns River Water Management District asserts the water is a public resource and that it has rights under easements the ranch granted during a government flood-control project in the late 1960s. It has filed a lawsuit.

"Now (the Mormon church is) contending that that reservoir, which was constructed with public money, can only be used for agricultural water supply," said Stanley Niego, an attorney for the district.

The utilities have been in discussions with Deseret for years about building a treatment plant to pull more water from the reservoir and the St. Johns River, which feeds it. Deseret's demand makes cities vying for drinking water unsure what it will cost.

Deseret officials referred questions to their Orlando attorney, Scott Johnson.

"This lawsuit seeks something for nothing," he said via e-mail. "Deseret Ranch was paid nothing for the flowage and storage water rights it transferred in the late 1960s, and those rights made no mention of water storage for public consumption. The arrangement with the City of Cocoa implicitly recognizes this."

Johnson said it's "too early to say what should be paid and by whom, however, we were engaged in a process to arrive at those answers by mutual agreement when this litigation was initiated. We will now allow the court process to play its role," he said.

Cocoa pays about $430,000 per year under a 1993 agreement with the ranch that includes easements and access to the reservoir. But it does not pay for the water it draws.

In addition to Cocoa and Titusville, the public utilities that want the additional drinking water are Orlando Utilities Commission, Orange County and Toho Water Authority in Kissimmee.

Suit filed

The St. Johns district filed the suit against Deseret's investment arm, Farmland Reserve Inc. of Salt Lake City, in the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orange County.

The district wants a judge to clarify that it has the right to flow and store water in Taylor Creek Reservoir, which sits on Deseret's land, for public drinking water. The district is suing to bring more certainty for the utilities involved in the project, which the district has nudged for years to use more of the St. Johns instead of more groundwater.

Construction of the reservoir began in 1966 and was finished in 1969.

The district says public utilities shouldn't have to pay for water that wouldn't be there were it not for the government project and levee that harnesses the water.

Deseret also makes money from the reservoir through leases to fishing clubs.

In 1992, Cocoa obtained a permit from the water management district to withdraw a yearly average of 8.83 million gallons a day from the reservoir. The city has used the reservoir since 1999.

Cocoa City Attorney Anthony Garganese said it's unclear whether the district's lawsuit would have any effect on the city's long-term water plans.

"Right now we're just not a party, and just kind of watching what's going on," he said. "The city has no plans to intervene in that lawsuit."

Demand rises

Some wellfields in Cocoa, Palm Bay and Titusville could run out of clean, cheap groundwater by 2030 if the region fails to switch to other sources such as Taylor Creek.

According to district study released earlier this year, at least nine public drinking wells in Brevard grow saltier every year at "critical" rates.

Officials say more water from the St. Johns River, via the Taylor Creek Reservoir, should help spare the region's wells from further contamination from saltwater and other environmental harm from overdraws of groundwater. But they also say a more spartan water ethic may be key to guarding the region's groundwater supply.

The reservoir expansion would be from 10 million to 25 million to 40 million daily gallons by 2015 at an estimated cost ranging from $133 million to $215 million. It has been in the works for years.

"I'm sure there'll be an appeal no matter who wins, so I'm going to say it's going to take one to two years (to resolve)," Niego, the district's attorney, said.

Additional Facts

Deseret Ranch spans about 450 square miles in Osceola, Orange and Brevard counties. The 300,000-acre ranch is the nation's largest calf and cattle operation, with more than 44,000 cows and 1,300 bulls.

Deseret wants to develop 10,000 homes, including houses, condominiums and apartments, on about 4,580 acres of ranch four miles east of Orlando.

Taylor Creek Reservoir is 10,015 acres in Orange and Osceola counties, about four miles west of the St. Johns River.

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