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Legislators are playing recklessly with our water

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


At the outset, I'll admit I don't know much about this issue. Like most of you, other than what I've read in the newspaper, aquifer storage and recovery is pretty much a foreign concept. It's something you might expect engineers and geologists who've had a couple of drinks to make an inside joke about as a way to remind the rest of us just how special their specialties are.

So don't think you're the only one who is clueless about this experimental process, which actually has its own acronym, ASR. In a nutshell, it's a way to conserve our most precious natural resource by taking above-ground wastewater, pumping it underground, then drawing it back up when needed. It's not a bad concept in a state where it's dry more than half the year even when we are not in a drought.

The debate that just took place in the Florida Legislature is not about the concept of ASR, though. It's about the practice. Now, when ASR technology is used, the wastewater we take from the surface must be treated before it is sent underground to the aquifer, and then treated again when it is retrieved. That makes sure the stuff you drink is safe, and free from the nasty stuff, like chemicals, nitrates, fecal coliform and pathogens, that pollute the water in the first place.

But the Florida House and Senate have voted to take a shortcut. A majority of legislators believe the process is redundant. They want to pump the wastewater directly into the aquifer and then treat it just once before it's brought back up for use.

Sound simple?

Yes, but only to simpletons.

Common sense should tell us that if we put untreated wastewater into the aquifer, which feeds all the springs and wells, it can foul our only natural source of drinking water. Even if you super-treat it on the way up, it's possible it will do some irreversible damage while it's down there.

Maybe it will cause muck and algae to flourish. The result of that can be found in most of our once-pristine rivers, where the problem of fertilizers and pesticides we use on our lawns and crops has become so widespread that the state is using your tax money to clean those substances out before they suffocate marine and plant life.

Maybe it will spread disease. In rivers and lakes in Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, antiquated septic systems are leaching sewage, causing local governments to periodically shut down popular swimming holes to protect the public's health. The state's water czars claim they won't use ASR on the North Suncoast, but that isn't spelled out in the proposed legislation.

But if any one of those known consequences occurs in the aquifer, which carries water hundreds of miles underneath Florida, it could be disastrous.

Then again, maybe it won't hurt anything, and the utilities, which now must treat the water twice, will save a bundle of money.

But no one is certain. Not the geologists. Not the hydrologists. Not the engineers. Not me, not you, not the governor and not the state senators and representatives who passed the ASR bill.

And that's the point. They don't know. They are taking a gamble with a resource that belongs to all of us, and if they lose, we won't be able to recoup the loss.

Florida has already proved to the rest of the world that it can't count. If this bill passes, which it probably will because our governor has successfully whined to his bubba, the president, Floridians will be known for lacking the good sense to not spit (careful spelling here) in what we're drinking.

And, just like the election recount spectacle, they'll be right.

Some Republican legislators in the North Suncoast did not buy into the majority juggernaut on ASR, and they deserve to be singled out for dissenting from their partisan leaders: in the House, Nancy Argenziano, Crystal River; David Russell Jr., Brooksville; and Heather Fiorentino, New Port Richey, and in the Senate, Ginny Brown-Waite, Brooksville; and Anna Cowin, Leesburg.

But what the majority of the senators and representatives have done is not just shortsighted and poorly planned, it's reckless. They're raping Mother Nature, and we -- the voters who elected them, and the others who can't be bothered to say "no" -- are accomplices in our silence.

The thoughtless lawmakers should be ashamed. The rest of us should be outraged.

- Jeff Webb is the Times' editor of editorials in Hernando and Citrus counties.

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