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A Times Editorial

A disaster in the making

DEP is pushing a bill that would allow water unfit for drinking to be injected into the aquifer for storage. The plan is too risky and should be rejected.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

The aquifer is Florida's lifeblood, a plentiful and relatively clean source for most of the state's drinking water. So it is puzzling that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is pushing a bill though the Legislature that would allow water suppliers to pump tainted surface water into the subterranean aquifer for later use.

The aquifer storage and recovery bill, which has passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee, is one of DEP's priorities this session. If it becomes law, it could aid Everglades restoration and provide more water for public use throughout the state, the DEP says. But at what cost?

The Everglades need a constant flow of water, so the restoration plan calls for storing 1-billion gallons of surface water a day (during wet periods) by injecting it 1,000 feet underground in more than 300 wells. The injected water would be partly treated, but allowed to exceed drinking water standards for coliform bacteria, which comes from human and animal waste. In dry periods, the water would be pumped out and spread across the Everglades to sustain native plant and animal life. The bill anticipates that the harmful organisms in the tainted surface water will die off while in the aquifer, but tests to prove that theory haven't been completed.

DEP officials say the surface water would be held like a bubble in surrounding brackish water until needed. Some scientists are skeptical of that plan, fearing that the water could become contaminated with heavy metals or chemically incompatible with Everglades water. Further tests and debate are needed before the state spends $1-billion on the project.

Given such uncertainty about aquifer storage in the Everglades, it could be even more of a problem elsewhere in Florida. Residents of the Tampa Bay area understand the need for more water and the danger of being careless with the aquifer. In the 1980s in St. Petersburg, partly treated sewage injected into the aquifer started showing up in private drinking-water wells.

The city of Tampa has an aquifer storage plan using Hillsborough River water (when there is enough), but Tampa will treat the surface water to drinking water standards before injecting it into the aquifer, eliminating the risk of contamination.

It is not clear why the DEP is pushing this bill. Perhaps it is to speed up Everglades restoration or make it more affordable. Storing water underground is less expensive than holding it above ground. But that wouldn't explain why the agency would open up aquifer storage of coliform-tainted water throughout the state.

The bill contains rules and regulations that would try to keep tainted water away from drinking water supplies and require monitoring. But the complexity of Florida's layered aquifer and how it interconnects with other water sources is still being studied. Does aquifer storage have a place in the state's overall water plan? Maybe in limited areas, but only after thorough study and consideration of other storage options.

Otherwise, injecting surface water that is unfit to drink into the aquifer sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. The Legislature should reject the aquifer storage and recovery bill and let the Department of Environmental Protection prove the safety of this proposal before considering it again.

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