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    Swiftmud seeks study on storing wastewater

    At issue is storing treated wastewater underground and pumping any excess from Pinellas to Pasco.

    By JAMES THORNER and ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 26, 2001


    Regional water officials have proposed a $1.2-million study of the environmental effects of storing treated wastewater underground, a process that could lead to the pumping of reclaimed water into the aquifer beneath Clearwater and Largo.

    The proposal, made by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, is intended ultimately to lead to a pipeline from Largo to Pasco County where excess treated wastewater could be sold to utility customers or sprayed on well fields to recharge the aquifer.

    But first, the process of storing the treated water underground -- called aquifer storage and recovery -- must pass environmental review. And that process may prove controversial.

    "The concept is to get the water where it's needed, when it's needed," said Anthony Andrade, project manager for the water district, known as Swiftmud.

    Aquifer storage and recovery got a bad name with parts of the public this year when Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders proposed pumping runoff from lakes and rivers into the aquifer without treatment. The resulting outcry over the lack of study led Bush to scuttle the plan, at least for now.

    Aquifer storage of effluent, or treated wastewater, is different in that the water pumped underground is decontaminated. The process is already in practice in St. Petersburg, Pinellas County and other parts of the state. Pinellas is in the process of abandoning the injection of treated wastewater from its Cross Bayou plant after studies found the effluent was seeping back up toward residents' drinking wells, but other well injection projects are under study now.

    St. Petersburg uses deep wells to inject excess treated wastewater, though the federal EPA has never granted a long-term permit for the practice. The city has also talked about using the deep wells for storage, allowing the city to draw out reclaimed water for use in watering lawns in dry periods.

    Swiftmud's plan for Largo and Clearwater would give those cities an option for rainy periods when they have more reclaimed water than residents want. Currently, that excess treated wastewater is pumped into water sources that eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.

    If the project proved feasible, Swiftmud proposes to pay half the cost of a $4-million pipeline to Pasco, with Pasco picking up the rest. Largo and Clearwater would each pay $2.5-million for the project.

    "Anything to get more reclaimed water into our system we'd be interested in discussing it," Pasco Utilities Director Bruce Kennedy said. "It's inevitable these reuse systems will be regionally interconnected."

    During the dry season, Pasco rations reclaimed water in the center of the county.

    Water-thirsty lawns there easily gulp the 1.5-million gallons of reclaimed water produced each day by four treatment plants in eastern Pasco.

    The Swiftmud plan is an echo of the much-more-expensive Pasco Rainbow Wellfield Rehydration Project doomed by Pinellas County opposition in 1996.

    The rainbow project involved pouring excess Pinellas and Pasco reclaimed water on Pasco well fields. Proponents said the water would have rehydrated dried-out wetlands and percolated into the ground to help boost the aquifer.

    Although studies showed reclaimed water is non-polluting, Pinellas objected to spilling treated wastewater in well fields that supply most of the county's drinking water.

    The proposal, which has been in the discussion stages for about five years, will be reviewed by Largo city commissioners at a meeting tonight. Largo city officials have recommended approval of it, primarily because the plan would provide Largo another option for the water instead of sending it into Tampa Bay.

    Clearwater commissioners have not discussed the plans because the city staff still has questions. "What we need to understand better is: How were the cost estimates developed and what would be the (economic) benefits to the city?" said Andy Neff, the city's public utilities director.

    - This story was compiled from reports by staff writers James Thorner and Eric Stirgus.

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