Guest opinion: Leaders must hold fast to completing storage restoration projects

Terrie Bates
 |  Special to The News-Press

For more than 15 years, as director of Water Resources at the South Florida Water Management District, I oversaw the scientific research, studies and pilot projects to support design and implementation of many of the planned projects to fix Florida’s water quality and quantity issues. Among them was the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), which represents one of the most promising solutions to stopping the high volumes of water plaguing the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.. The project’s critical Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells component could curb more than 70 percent of the harmful Lake Okeechobee discharge occurrences to the coasts.

The ASR wells work by capturing large volumes of water from basins north of Lake Okeechobee and storing it underground rather than allowing it to flow unchecked into the rising lake. As part of the project’s implementation process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a regional study of the ASR wells, which yielded promising findings that were supported by the National Academies of Sciences.

The project includes protective Underground Injection Control permitting requirements, which will help ensure water recovered from the wells meets all the appropriate levels for protecting the public against bacteria and human pathogens. Proper and effective treatment processes will be required for the site-specific conditions at each ASR well site. The same is true with any elevated levels of toxicity. If ASR wells are anticipated to mobilize arsenic, permits are required to specify conditions to protect the groundwater from contamination.

Another additional benefit is the data that shows ASR wells routinely reduce phosphorus. We know that cycle testing at wells near the Kissimmee River showed statistically significant reductions in phosphorus during storage.  Observed decreases during storage suggest that reductions in phosphorus concentrations occurred as a result of mineral precipitation, sorption, or biological uptake. These projects are designed to store water and provide downstream benefits.  Water quality benefits are ancillary and are a bonus, but science shows ASR storage does improve water quality.

ASR storage comes with many benefits, one of the biggest being its cost in comparison to above ground storage projects. Current estimates put the cost of the ASR wells in the project at $400 million, which is far less than other projects involving above ground storage that range in the billions of dollars. The addition of 80 ASR wells to the currently authorized CERP projects will result in an over 70 percent reduction in the frequency of harmful discharges to the coasts. Unlike other types of underground wells, ASRs do not “waste” water that is beneficial for the environment and water supply; rather, the capture water during extremely wet period that can be beneficial during droughts and drier conditions. 

More: Commentary: Coordination critical to restore Everglades

More: State managers tackle water quality issues near Everglades restoration site

Any delays of this project will only continue the status quo: wasting fresh water and allowing it to harm our coastal estuaries. Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida Legislature and the SFWMD Governing Board should continue to move forward with a careful approach to implementing this vital project.

Terrie Bates is the former director of Water Resources at the South Florida Water Management District. She is the owner and operator of Water Resources Consulting Inc., a West Palm Beach-based environmental consulting practice.

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