Should Orange County citrus growers get free water?

Updated:

Loading

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Some central Florida citrus growers find themselves in a war being waged over reclaimed water.

Grove owners claim elected officials have broken a promise made decades ago, a promise that they say guaranteed Orange County growers free water to protect their fruit trees from deep freezes.

Grower Carl Fabry, whose groves are in southwest Orange and Lake counties, is one of the growers at the center of the dispute.

Fabry was 5 years old the first time his dad put him to work in the family's orange grove, and he knows whether it's Central Florida fruit when he pulls out his pocket knife, slices through the citrus and finds the juice dripping from his hands.

"See the juice already dripping out?" Fabry asked WFTV reporter Berndt Petersen. "You're going to get your hand wet when you cut a piece of Florida fruit, and it's delicious."

But Fabry sours over his struggle to stay in business thanks to a new battle for water that Orange County citrus growers never thought they would have to fight.

"They think citrus growers are rich people. We're small family farmers," Fabry said.

They are farmers who insist they should not have to pay for water. A little more than 20 years ago, local growers agreed to take treated wastewater off the hands of Orange County and the city of Orlando.

The local governments were in trouble with the federal regulators for releasing the discharge into Shingle Creek. Fabry said the water used to protect the groves during hard freezes was supposed to be free.

"Nobody in their right mind, and especially me, would have planted in 1990 without that promise of free water forever," Fabry said. "They told us that to our face, just like I'm talking to you."

But some current city and county officials said the original deal has expired, and they have decided to charge the growers 19 cents for every 1,000 gallons of reclaimed water.

"For-profit organizations, it's a great industry, but we're not here to pay for everyone's water that needs it for their industry," said Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards.

Edwards explained that residential customers pay 93 cents per 1,000 gallons of reclaimed water, so he considers the special rate for farmers a bargain.

"I'm a citrus grower myself," Edwards said. "Things haven't been better, so if farmers aren't doing good now, they're never going to do well."

Yet, some residents who pay the higher rate are fine with giving the growers a break.

"Don't charge them, or charge them a minimal amount," said Orange County resident Judy Weaver. "They need the water. We don't."

A generation ago, Orange County had 50,000 acres of citrus groves. Today, it has barely 3,500.

There hasn't been an orange grove along Orange Avenue for 30 years, WFTV's Petersen explains. And Fabry said without the free water, there soon will not be any citrus anywhere in Orange County.

"I'm going to make a prediction," Fabry said. "Unless something changes drastically, in 20 years, there will be no commercial citrus production in central Florida, period."

The reclaimed water would cost most growers a few thousand dollars a year, Fabry estimated. But county officials said if the growers continue paying nothing for the water, the loss in revenue would top $200,000, annually.

And some say residential customers may have to make up the difference. The Orlando City Council is expected to discuss the issue later this month.