“Part of the discussion over the next 30 years will involve how the district will pay for water supplies,” said Blake Guillory, executive director of the regional water agency.

He said a plan Polk County officials submitted in 2009 carried a $1 billion price tag.

Gary Fries, Polk’s utilities director, is scheduled to address Swiftmud’s Governing Board to discuss forming a partnership to work out these issues.

Guillory was joined in the presentation by Paul Senft of Haines City, chairman of the 13-member Governing Board, and Neil Combee of Lakeland, Polk’s other board member.

They were asked why the bulk of the water supply funding in the past went to the Tampa Bay area and little came to Polk.

Combee said the Tampa Bay area was a higher priority because its water use was causing salt water intrusion in coastal areas and causing lakes and wetlands to dry up in areas north of Tampa.

“The money had to go there first, but ours is coming,” Combee said.

Finding enough money to manage and protect water supplies has become more challenging in recent years in the wake of the economic downturn that has reduced property tax revenue. Additional revenue caps have been placed on the water management districts by the Florida Legislature.

That has meant a reduction of staff from 870 to 600 employees.

That has forced perhaps a long overdue examination of how the districts spend money, Senft and Combee said.

“The staff is smaller, but more efficient, but still committed to our core mission,” Senft said.

Guillory said he is evaluating suggestions that some work done by agency staff, such as land surveying and engineering, can be privatized.

“We’re going to look at the costs and look at whether it’s something the government should be doing,” he said.

Senft mentioned a study under way to look at all of the land the agency owns within its 16-county jurisdiction to make sure all of it is still needed.

“We’re not going to be getting rid of any environmentally sensitive land or land that is needed for the protection of water resources,” Senft said.

According to Swiftmud spokeswoman Amy Haroun, the evaluation of the section of the district that includes sections of Polk County outside of the Green Swamp will begin in March. Tentative recommendations will be presented by mid-April.

The evaluation of land inside the Green Swamp will begin in April, with tentative recommendations coming by mid-June, she said.

Two other local issues drew questions from the audience.

Some asked for the justification for the $250 million Lake Hancock project, which involves raising the lake near Bartow to store water to replenish the Peace River and removing some of pollutants from the water before it heads downstream to Charlotte Harbor.

Combee defended the project as “a great project for the Peace River and for Charlotte Harbor,” adding by maintaining flow in the Peace River, Polk County will be allowed to continue to pump groundwater.

The Peace River’s flow problems are tied to a drop in aquifer levels caused by decades of overpumping.

Another question came up about the proposal to ask Swiftmud officials to turn over control of some structures in the Lake Henry area in eastern Winter Haven to the Lake Region Lakes Management District, also known as the Canal Commission.

The structures allow water to flow downstream into a canal system that eventually reaches the Peace River.

Guillory said he’s still waiting to see a formal proposal to evaluate.

He said the agency’s legal staff is looking into whether the transfer is legal.

“The district is in a tough position,” Guillory said, explaining they’re trying to balance the needs of the people in the Charlotte Harbor area with needs of property owners around the lakes.

“We should have a decision shortly,” he said.

[ Tom Palmer can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7535. Read his blog on the environment at environment.blogs.theledger.com and his blog on county government at county.blogs.theledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @LedgerTom. ]