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Watered down



Combine massive development and a statewide drought, and you get a water shortage -- a "crisis," as state lawmakers see it. But their likely fix has alarmed environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who fear it may pollute the state's drinking water.

The lawmakers' solution: During the rainy season, capture billions of gallons of stormwater, inject it deep into the state's limestone core, then wait for the dry season to pull it back out. It's not a new idea -- in fact, Florida already has seven so-called ASR (for aquifer storage and retrieval) wells, and has plans for potentially hundreds more.

And yet, since the EPA requires that the water be treated to safe drinking-water standards both before it's injected and after it's retrieved, those wells are expensive.

That's where the Florida Legislature's corner-cutting -- and environmentalists' alarm -- comes in.

In the next week, the state Senate -- with support from Gov. Jeb Bush, the Department of Environmental Protection and the state's five water-management districts -- is expected to approve a bill seeking an end-run around the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Their goal is to remove one step in the process, and allow water to be injected without treatment. That way, utilities would only bear the cost of treating it on the way up.

Despite the governor's backing, even some conservative legislators aren't sure it's a good idea. The House version of the bill, passed on April 23, exempts 15 North Florida counties from the plan.

"It's an unproven technology," Rep. Jerry Maygarden, the Panhandle legislator who pushed the exemption, told reporters. "I would hate to start putting raw water into the aquifer in North Florida."

According to the state, the stored water -- which, all agree, will be full of contaminants such as fecal coliform, a dangerous bacteria found in human waste as well as agricultural runoff -- will sit in underground "bubbles" and not mix with the Floridan Aquifer, from which most of Central and North Florida draws drinking water. Without exposure to sunlight or heat, that bacteria will die in 30 days, say the state's experts.

In other words, the state contends, it's a harmless action. Gov. Bush said as much in a letter to his president-brother, whose environmental agency must rule on the state's ability to put the plan into action. To treat the water twice is "nonsensical," the governor wrote. And since ASR wells would play a big part in the multibillion Everglades restoration project, the end-run could save taxpayers as much as $500 million.

Environmentalists aren't buying it.

The Tallahassee-based Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) and other groups have made the proposal the session's hot-button issue. So far, the attention has focused on coliform -- and with good reason. If contaminated water leaked from the underground bubbles and entered the Floridan Aquifer, it could endanger thousands of people who draw their water from private wells, more than half of which tap the Floridan.

Mike Slayton, public-policy director for the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), says that won't happen: Anyone who seeks a permit to install a new ASR well first would have to prove the coliform would die off and the water would be contained. If they can't, he says, the well would not be allowed.

Still, several high-profile scientists, including former EPA administrator John Hankison, doubt the die-off will occur. In fact, two water management districts soon will probe that very question -- proof, some say, that there still are no conclusive answers. Even a University of South Florida study that supports the bacteria die-off shows that viruses and other life forms could survive.

"There's more stuff in people's poop than fecal coliform," says local Sierra Clubber Cecilia Height. Indeed, the focus on that issue, some say, distracts from other possible problems. Much of the ASR water comes from runoff into ditches and ponds -- water that contains pesticides and other man-made pollutants.

And even if the state's plan works, it still could unleash a new problem: Blue-green algae, which is found in many of Florida's lakes and rivers, houses a dangerous toxin linked with liver and kidney disease as well as several deaths in South America, says former SJRWMD environmental scientist John Burns.

If it's stored, he says, the algae will die -- and release the toxins into the water. Treating the water may not be enough. "We have algal toxins that are passing through the treatment process," says Burns, who now runs Cyano Lab in Palatka. "That needs to be evaluated."

With so much uncertain, it seems odd the ASR bill has moved so easily through the Legislature. It cleared the Senate weeks ago, but because of the North Florida exemption added, must return to the Senate for another vote.

But the EPA has the final vote. If the agency rules that Florida's measure violates the Safe Drinking Water Act and refuses to grant an exemption, it dies (thus provoking some Bush-family tension). Even environmental activists don't dismiss ASR as an option; they just want the science proven first, perhaps in a small-scale test, before statewide use proves to be an error that can't be corrected.

Before wandering into the unknown, however, lawmakers might want to reconsider a proposal limiting future growth to the available water supply. Thanks to the development industry, that bill is currently going nowhere.


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