Geology rules out aquifer storage

Swiftmud's director says it likely won't work because the county lacks an underground "confining unit'' to hold the injected water in place.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Legislative plans to inject untreated water into Florida's aquifers are unlikely to work in Hernando County or other areas north of Pasco and Polk counties within the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Executive Director E.D. "Sonny" Vergara said Tuesday.

Aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, requires a "confining unit" to hold the injected water in place, Vergara told Hernando County commissioners during a water workshop.

Those units are amply present throughout the aquifer south of Pasco County, he said, but thin to non-existent to the north.

"I don't know that we are of the appropriate geology for it to be of benefit to us here," said Vergara, whose agency has endorsed the concept.

The system is of questionable use in Pasco County, he added, and more feasible in Hillsborough County, where "they are finding containing layers and the appropriate geology to at least test it."

So far, Hillsborough and Manatee counties and the cities of Bradenton, North Port and Punta Gorda have proposed studies to see if the procedure can benefit their water supplies, Vergara told commissioners.

He sent similar information in a letter to state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who opposed the legislation in the first Senate vote and plans to vote against it when it returns for additional consideration.

"It makes me feel a little better. I can't say it makes me feel a whole lot better," Brown-Waite said of Vergara's letter, which calls the procedure "less feasible" north of Pasco and Polk.

Brown-Waite continued to challenge the idea, which she contends has no scientific proof that it will work safely. She also said she would use Vergara's letter as protection for her district, which includes Hernando and parts of Pasco, Polk and Sumter counties.

"Why are they studying it to determine the die-off of microorganisms if it's safe?" Brown-Waite said. "Maybe it's just that they are spending money kind of like wearing suspenders with a belt. But as I said on the floor, I'm not a scientist, but scientists are studying this. Why the rush?"

She harbored no illusion that the Senate, which approved the program 29-7, will make an about-face when it reviews the House version.

"It is a done deal," Brown-Waite said. "I'm told they're even going to take off the communities in North Florida that a House member added on (for exclusion). That's what the "deal' is."

But still she had concerns. Those were shared by several people who have contacted Hernando County commissioners.

Sally Sevier, who frequently talks about environmental issues to the commission, urged commissioners to seek ways to "opt out" of the process or at the very least protect itself from actions in other counties.

Ridge Manor activist Irma Carr echoed Sevier's questions, adding that taxpayers might as well stop funding agencies such as Swiftmud and the Department of Environmental Protection if they willingly back ideas to taint the water supply against the public's wishes.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden tossed the issue right into Vergara's lap when he appeared for a workshop on water-related issues Tuesday.

Why did Swiftmud support this idea, which "obviously is on a lot of our minds right now?" she asked. And how does it pertain to Hernando County? The process worked successfully when tested with treated water in Manatee and DeSoto counties during the 1980s, Vergara responded. The water remains stored in a protective area and does not escape, he said.

"It worked and it works today," he said. "There are other examples around the state of Florida where it works every day."

Vergara acknowledged the controversy that has swirled because the legislative proposal would allow untreated surface water to go into the aquifers.

He tried to assure the commission that no plans exist to inject low-quality water into any area where drinking water comes from. And before any permit is issued, he said, scientists will determine whether the geology is appropriate for storage.

He then showed a map that indicated no such area appears to exist in Hernando County. The Legislature still must give its final approval to the proposal, and Gov. Jeb Bush would have to sign the bill into law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also would have to waive the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for the state program to be viable.