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Officials like state water storage plan

Most Pasco officials praise the Senate bill that allows for underground storage of untreated surplus water during the rainy season.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


Plans to inject untreated water from rivers and creeks into the Floridan Aquifer won praise from Pasco County officials seeking relief from water shortages that bedevil the region.

How praiseworthy is the plan in Pasco's view? If the county's geology permitted it, Pasco might consider using the underground storage method itself, said Pasco utilities chief Doug Bramlett.

"I think it's a good idea, I think it's a great idea," Bramlett said.

Supporters of aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, say underground caverns are safe and inexpensive containers to hold surplus surface water during rainy seasons.

The drawback to such a storage method has been cost: Federal clean water regulations require water pumped into aquifers be treated for potability.

A bill approved Monday by the state House of Representatives would let Florida utilities, assuming they met safeguards, pump untreated water into deep, isolated pockets of the aquifer.

Some environmentalists wasted no time in condemning the plan.

They fear fecal coliform bacteria present in some river water could breach the underground limestone and sand layers and contaminate the mostly germ-free drinking water supply.

Critics include Republican Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, who represents part of Pasco. Brown-Waite has said she would like to delay consideration of the plan pending further scientific review.

Others such as Pasco commissioner Steve Simon believe aquifer storage is a proven winner. Simon lampooned what he called the extreme environmentalist position as "I'm afraid, but I don't know what I'm afraid of."

Simon, a Democrat, said Florida's flat topography drives up the cost of building above-ground reservoirs. Storing water underground in the natural reservoirs of the aquifer makes the most sense, he said.

Since all water pumped from the aquifer, regardless of its bacteria content, must be filtered and chlorinated, where's the sense in treating the water before it goes into the ground?

"It's not toilet water," Simon said. "It's river water."

The bill passed by the House has collected many allies. They include the Southwest Florida Water Management District (known as Swiftmud), the state Department of Environmental Protection and Tampa Bay Water.

The key to successful underground storage is finding sections of the aquifer secure from leakage and surrounded by water of such poor quality that river water couldn't harm it, Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan said.

Still undetermined is whether any bacteria would survive in the aquifer. The water agency has commissioned a study from the University of South Florida to learn the rate at which germs die underground.

"It's not about putting water in an area where there's wonderfully fresh drinking water and tainting it," Molligan said.

Some of the best candidates for suitable underground reservoirs are in southern Hillsborough and Manatee counties, although neither Bramlett nor Molligan ruled out Pasco.

Geologically, Pasco is considered a transitional area between the inappropriately porous Hernando County and the plentiful water pockets of Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

"Maybe we could do it out toward eastern Pasco County or maybe along the coastline," Bramlett said. "But I'm not a geologist . . . there would need to be a lot of testing and well drilling and analysis first."

Even Gilliam Clarke, one of Pasco's most outspoken environmentalists on water issues, favors the plan.

Clarke points out that untreated water would be stored in isolated "bubbles" tucked within non-potable brackish layers. As long as engineers and not politicians call the shots, the plan would work, she said.

"The best way to handle this is not to get hysterical about it but approach it with common sense," Clarke said.

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