The Northwest Florida Water Management District's Governing Board voted unanimously yesterday to accept an administrative law judge's finding that "it is not in the public interest for Bay County to operate the well field" in the Sand Hill Lakes region.
The Board's decision came after hearing from its legal counsel, opposing lawyers for Bay and Washington counties, and several supporters of the Save Sand Hill Lakes Coalition. About 20 concerned citizens attended the meeting in Havana, with several publicly urging the Board to reject Bay County's consumptive-use permit request.
"We need to stop this [legal dispute] and consider what we're doing with the taxpayers' money," said Board member Joyce Estes just before the panel voted.
The 2-year dispute over the well field stems from Bay County's original proposal to draw up to 30 million gallons of water per day from an area located in northern Bay County on the Washington County line. The area is home to a fragile network of hundreds of karst lakes, some of which now look more like puddles after years of drought. Hundreds of residents in the Sand Hill Lakes region feared Bay's proposed well field would further reduce water levels in lakes and the aquifer as well as in private residential wells.
"This would have been the most disastrous thing that could have happened to the Sand Hills," Coalition member Bill Gunter said of the well field plan minutes after the board voted to accept the judge's recommended order, issued in late July. Over the last few years, Gunter and his wife, Gail, have watched the water recede on Lake Lucas, where they live, 50 feet beyond their 86-foot dock. "Because of usage and drought we have lakes that are virtually dry," he added.
Gunter was relieved that Bay also lost a legal maneuver asking the Board to return the case to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings for reconsideration. "I literally praise the Lord for the fact that our environment has been protected," he said.
Doug Manson, lead counsel for Northern Trust, one of the petitioners in the lawsuit against Bay County, lauded the Board's decision. "We thank the Governing Board for listening to us and to the citizens who came here today to voice their concerns about the Sand Hill Lakes area," he said. "But," he added, "we are ready to put this divisive issue behind us and foster better relations with Bay County. It is our hope to work with Bay County in the future."
The Coalition to Save Sand Hill Lakes is made up of over 500 Bay and Washington County residents as well as environmental organizations such as the Bay County Audubon Society and Florida Audubon.
Click here to download the Board's final order.