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One Idea In Everglades Debate: Send Water Underground

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
National Parks Conservation Association
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A legislative proposal for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades restoration is prompting bitter debate over central and south Florida’s water.

New research calls for much more water storage. One idea: Send it underground.

To explain the concept, Conversations host Nicole Creston spoke with 90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green.

NICOLE CRESTON: Amy Green, We’ve heard a lot about Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal for a reservoir south of the state’s largest lake. The reservoir is aimed at alleviating the lake discharges that last year triggered toxic algae blooms.

But there are other ideas for storing water, and one of them is underground, right?

AMY: Right. Well, first let me paint the big picture. New research calls for a vast amount of additional water storage throughout central and south Florida. Scientists say the river of grass historically was much wetter than previously thought, and now sea level rise is pressuring the watershed. And this is important because you’ll remember the Everglades support the drinking water of more than a third of Floridians.

So there are plans for reservoirs north and south of Lake Okeechobee, and Senate President Joe Negron and environmental groups want to speed up those plans for a southern reservoir. But there also are plans for storing water underground, and there are two methods of doing that.

The first is called aquifer storage and recovery wells or ASR wells, and this is not a new concept. Since 2000 Everglades restoration has called for more than 300 ASR wells primarily north of Lake Okeechobee. That was scaled back to fewer than 100 after water managers discovered some problems with so many wells like saltwater intrusion and aquifer fracturing.

But the idea is that the wells would work with a northern reservoir to store water for retrieval later. Bob Verrastro of the South Florida Water Management District explains it this way:

“Once that reservoir is filled to the brim it can’t store anymore water. Whereas we can integrate the ASR wells and use the ASR wells, like, as a flow valve, like, a spillover valve where we can pump the reservoir down and empty the reservoir and push that water into the aquifer. And then the reservoir is available again to store even more water.”

NICOLE: What is the other way water managers would store water underground?

AMY: The other is deep injection wells, and this method is more controversial because the water would not be retrievable for future use. Water managers say the wells would be used to stem lake discharges only during high-water years like last year, but water engineer Gary Goforth says the wells contradict the mission of Everglades restoration, which is water conservation.

“I find it unconscionable that this state and the corps are even considering implementing deep injection wells. Certainly for the long-term the state of Florida is facing a very severe water quantity crisis. Put simply the state has over allocated the amount of water available for drinking water and irrigation.”

NICOLE: Has anything like this been done before on this scale?

AMY: ASR wells, no, not on this scale. This would be novel. But many municipalities including in central Florida use deep injection wells to dispose of wastewater and have done so for decades.

NICOLE: Where do the proposals stand now?

AMY: The South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – they are the state and federal agencies overseeing Everglades restoration – they are working on the proposals. If approved the wells would take at least a decade or two to construct.