By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001
Florida and Georgia draw their drinking water from the same underground aquifer, but the two states have completely different attitudes toward a new technique that would store extra water in it.
In drought-stricken Florida, aquifer storage and recovery -- ASR for short -- is being embraced by state officials as a savior, not just for thirsty consumers but also for the vanishing Everglades.
Despite the objections of environmental groups and serious questions from scientists and federal regulators, Florida lawmakers are pushing ahead with a bill that would end requirements that any water stored in ASR wells be purified first to protect the aquifer from contamination.
Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers have been far more cautious. They have slapped a moratorium on any ASR wells being created in the state's coastal counties until 2003, demanding proof by then that the deep wells will not damage the aquifer.
Leading the crusade against ASR in the Georgia Assembly is Republican state Rep. Anne Mueller of Savannah. When told what her counterparts in Tallahassee are working on, Mueller said, "Well, that's dumber than dirt."
Mueller said she and her colleagues in Georgia -- some of whom are now pushing a total ban on ASR -- approved the moratorium because they feared that a mistake with an ASR well could forever alter their state's natural water supply.
"If you pump something down there that's not pure, you can contaminate the aquifer," Mueller contended. "Until they can get some better studies, we don't want them to do it."
But Florida officials say they are satisfied with the studies that already have been done that ASR is safe. Seven ASR wells now operate around the state. Permits for 26 more have already been issued, and another dozen permits are under review.
Florida state law requires that any water to be stored in ASR wells first be cleaned up to drinking-quality standards. Now state legislators are considering changing that law to allow pumping untreated water into the aquifer. Backing the change is the state Department of Environmental Protection.
DEP officials familiar with the proposed change did not return calls seeking comment. The agency's Web site says relaxing the treatment rule is "designed to protect the environment and public health, while promoting public and private investment in water supply development projects."
Even more important to the state is that ending the prohibition against using untreated water will save up to $400-million on the cost of the $8-billion Everglades restoration project.
A key part of the Everglades plan approved calls for punching more than 300 deep holes in the limestone around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River to create ASR wells.
During the rainy season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would inject more than 1-billion gallons of freshwater a day into the wells. The fresh water would sit 1,000 feet underground in a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer.
The plan calls for using that water in dry weather, pumping it back to the surface to keep water flowing in the Everglades and slake the thirst of South Florida's booming populace.
The water that the state wants to pump underground -- water from polluted Lake Okeechobee, and the surrounding farms -- won't pass drinking water standards without expensive treatment.
The bills now being considered by the Legislature would allow the water pumped into ASR wells to exceed standards for bacteria and coliform. Coliform comes from human and animal waste. The bills do not limit the rule-change to just the Everglades project, but would would relax the rules for all utilities statewide.
Only two other states allow untreated water to be injected into ASR wells, according to Gainesville engineer David Payne, who named ASR and has written the book on the technology behind it. Those states are Utah and Arizona, which have very different geology from Florida.
Payne said most bacteria dies off naturally in water injected under the ground, although no one knows why.
But John Vecchioli, a former district chief of the U.S. Geological Survey who served on a panel of experts that studied ASR for the Everglades plan, said that in some cases the bacteria "do persist in the aquifer after being injected."
Before the Legislature approves loosening the rules on treating the water, Vecchioli said, "that still needs to be investigated more."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also expressed "grave concerns" about changing the law, according to a legislative staff report. EPA officials could not be reached for comment this week.
Audubon of Florida, the Sierra Club and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation have urged lawmakers to be cautious about ASR, arguing that any damage done to the aquifer will be permanent.
But Payne, whose engineering company has dominated the ASR market for years, contended that relaxing the rules should be safe. He said the Georgia and Florida situations are not comparable because the circumstances behind them are different.
Georgia legislators imposed the moratorium on ASR after a private company applied for permits to take water from three Savannah-area rivers, store it in ASR wells and then sell it to local utilities during droughts. Opponents not only challenged ASR but also the company's bid to own the water.
But Mueller, the Savannah Republican who spearheaded the Georgia moratorium, said she cannot imagine her state ever following in Florida's footsteps and waiving the requirements that ASR water be cleaned before being injected into the aquifer. "I'm glad water doesn't run uphill," Mueller said. "That way your water can't come up here to Georgia and mess up our aquifer."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.