SFWMD considers use of ASR wells

WEST PALM BEACH — In the last legislative session, the State of Florida set aside $50 million to jump start a project to store water north of Lake Okeechobee. The challenge faced by the South Florida Water Management District governing board, is how to use that money to get the most “bang for the buck.”

“It all takes money to make things happen,” State Senator Gayle Harrel, who represents District 25, Martin, St. Lucie and western Palm Beach County, told the SFWMD governing board at their July 11 meeting.

“We really want to make sure we are doing everything we can north of the lake,” she said. “We are allocating this money to address that water that is coming into the lake. We want to store it up there, and not have it come into the lake and therefore not have it released into Lake Okeechobee and down through the St. Lucie Canal.”

In the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes a shallow (with water up to about 4 feet deep) Wetland Attenuation Feature (WAF) with a storage volume of approximately 46,000 acre-feet; 80 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells with a storage volume of approximately 448,000 acre-feet per year; and two wetland restoration sites along the Kissimmee River, Paradise Run and Kissimmee River Center.

Total cost for LOWRP is estimated around $2 billion. Of that total, about $400 million is for 80 ASR wells. According to information shared at the SFWMD meeting, the ASR wells are the most cost-effective method to store water. A cluster of 10 ASR wells with a water treatment facility could be built on property the state already owns on the Kissimmee River for $50 million.

The ASR wells also offer the most immediate help for water storage north of the lake. The larger project, the WAF, will take about 20 years. The wetlands restoration projects, while providing benefits to water quality and wildlife habitat, do not provide water storage.

The WAF and the wetlands restoration sites are in Glades County. The ASR sites are in Glades, Okeechobee and Martin counties. Because the ASR wells have small footprints of about 1.5 acres each, they can be constructed on property already in state ownership.

LOWRP is the only Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) project that influences the timing and distribution of water entering Lake Okeechobee, which is key to Everglades restoration, estuary protection and water supply, explained Tim Gysan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Senior project manager.

The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, which protects the residents of South Florida from flooding, eliminated much of the floodplain storage between Orlando and Okeechobee.

Before C&SF, flow came into Lake Okeechobee very slowly, he explained.

“What was a journey of several months and up to half a year of water from the Chain of Lakes in the Kissimmee Basin down to Lake Okeechobee has been reduced to a matter of weeks, which results in water flowing six times faster into Lake Okeechobee than it can be released,” he said.

“Because of the urbanization that has happened since the 1950s, we don’t have the option to put that water back out on the landscape where it used to be,” he said. The challenge now is how do you get that storage back?”

Mr. Gysan said their geological studies indicated that a deep storage reservoir is not feasible north of Lake Okeechobee.

Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells are an important part of the storage solution, he said, due to the small amount of footprint they require and the amount of storage they provide. He said before water is injected into an ASR well, it is treated to drinking water standards, using UV and filtering, before the water is put into the ground. The water injected into the ASR stays in a “bubble” area around the well. He said they estimate recovery of 70 percent of the stored water, but added this is a conservative estimate because a pilot project found a higher rate of recovery in wells north of the lake.

He said with an above-ground reservoir, water is lost to evaporation. With ASR, there is no water lost to evaporation.

LOWRP includes about 4,700 acres of wetlands restoration including 3,500 in the Paradise Run area and 1,200 acres in the central Kissimmee River area. About 1,500 acres of the Paradise Run area is in private ownership. About 1,000 acres of the Central Kissimmee River site is in private ownership.

About 9,300 acres in the WAF area are in private ownership.

Of the LOWRP nearly $2 billion price tag, land acquisition for the wetlands and WAF will cost an estimated $80 million; construction of the WAF will cost about $1.2 billion; work to restore the wetlands will cost about $250 million; the ASRs will cost about $400 million ($50 million per cluster for eight clusters of 10 wells for a total of 80 wells).

Of the LOWRP projects, the ARS could be phased in. Unlike the other components, work on ASRs could begin immediately because the state already owns the land.

“Water supply is important,” aid SFWMD governing board member Ron Bergeron. “But compatible levels with the environment is important too.

“I have a difficult time when it comes to putting water down in the ground. I feel a little better when I hear it is going to be clean, drinkable water,” said Mr. Bergeron. “I do like the shallow storage, more of a wetland, more usable to the public in the future for duck hunting and fishing.”

SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett said “the most immediate thing we have is the $50 million appropriation.”

He said in November, the SFWMD board will be asked for a letter of support as the local sponsor of the project. Before that happens, SFWMD could enter into a pre-project partnership credit agreement to use the $50 million supplied by the state to start work on water storage north of the lake.

“Could we make a $50 million investment next year in ASR wells?” asked SFWMD board member Jay Steinle.

“We own the lands where these wells would be located so that would accelerate it too,” he noted.

The ASR component costs 20 percent of the total budget and represents 80 percent of the storage, he said.

“Implementation of the ASR technology would be a great tool to help us reduce some of the undesirable discharges that are occurring to the coastal estuaries.” said Matthew Morrison, of the SFWMD Office of Federal Policy and Coordination.

He said SFWMD will receive credit for the expended funds toward the state’s 50 percent share of the LOWRP.

Mr. Morrison said the legislative intent of the $50 million is to provide water storage to help reduce discharges to the coastal estuaries. He said operating and maintenance cost for a 10-well cost will be about $1 million per year. He said there are stringent Florida Department of Environmental Regulation requirements for water injected in ASR wells.

ASR wells reduce phosphorus in water

Bob Verrastro, SFWMD Principal Hydrologist, said the pilot ASR project resulted in “quite a surprise.” Pumping water into the ASR well resulted in a reduction in phosphorus when they pumped the water back up. The limestone in the aquifer appears to absorb some of the phosphorus in the water.

“Most of the water we were putting into the aquifer had phosphorus concentrations between 100 and 150 parts per billion (ppb). Everything we got out of the well was less than 20 ppb.

“We think there absorption that does take place,” he said. “There is mechanical filtering that does take place within the aquifer. There is a component of dilution and dispersion and there is also a microbiological aspect. We are working with USGS (United States Geological Survey) right now to determine if there is a component of microbiological activity taking place within the aquifer.

“We’re trying to really assess whether we can count on that degree of reduction over a long period of time.”

He said the degree of dilution or dispersion alone cannot account for the degree of reduction.

Board members asked Mr. Verrastro about any connection between ASRs and arsenic and sinkholes.

“When you put oxygenated, fresh water under ground into the aquifer, what’s happening is that it is displacing the brackish water that is in the aquifer, water that has been there for thousands of years. When that water touches the limestone matrix, it reacts chemically to that rock and the minerals in that rock. It leaches some of those minerals which are pyrite (aka fool’s gold), it leaches a bit of that chemical which is arsenic. There were a few of those ASR wells, a few ASR systems found when they put water under ground and they recovered that water, it has arsenic in it that was above the drinking water standard for arsenic. It was a big deal in the world of ASR.”

He said this led to more research into ASRs to find out if oxygenated water was responsible for this effect.

“We built a treatment system that actually removed oxygen from the water before we pumped it into the ASR well. As soon as we recovered that water, zero arsenic,” he said.

He said solutions are to pretreat the water, or to cycle the water and allowing the water to condition the well. He said when they tried cycling the water in and out of the well, arsenic concentrations declined.

He said ASRs do not contribute to the risk of sinkholes.

He said the water injected into ASRs is very buffered. “It is not aggressive. It does not want to dissolve the rock at all,” he said.

Board members asked how operating an ASR compared to the cost of a reservoir.

“ASR is a cost-effective solution in terms and short- and long-term for the amount of water that you recover,” said Mr. Morrison.

He suggested locating a cluster of wells near the site of an ASR pilot test site on the Kissimmee River. He said they already have a knowledge of the hydrology in that area.

Most of those members of the public who spoke at the meeting supported the use of ASR wells, but some had doubts.

“Storage north of the lake is really very critical,” said Celeste DePalma of Audubon Florida. She said the wetland component of CERP is extremely critical. Ms. DePalma said the water that 10 ASR wells could store is insignificant in comparison in the amount of water that is dumped east and west into the estuaries.

“The Farm Bureau very much supports ASR,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau.

“We support Everglades restoration. The one part of it that we don’t support is the purchase of additional land,” said Mr. Ritter. “We think using state-owned land is the way to go. There has been a lot of land that has been purchased in those areas (Glades and Okeechobee counties). Some of it isn’t even being used right now. We don’t need to take any more land off the tax rolls.”

“We are strong supporters of this project, particularly the ASR component,” Kerry Kates with Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. “We agree with Farm Bureau that these projects should be built on state-owned property.” He said ASRs will provide the fastest relief for the coastal estuaries.

“ASR is not an emergent technology. This is something that has been used around the world for decades,” he said. “This is a safe technology. It has been vetted. It’s tried and true. It’s very effective in what it does.”

Ernie Barnett of the Florida Land Council said when CERP first looked at traditional tools such as above ground impoundment of water, “we could do very little to stop the discharges. It wasn’t until we added in the ASR component that we got tremendous reduction of discharges.” The sheer volume of water the ASRs can safety store and recover for later use is key to the successful operation of CERP, he said.

He said Corps and SFWMD did a multi-year study that culminated in 2015 that found the wells are viable and should be included in the plan.

“You have to do all of the authorized projects,” he said. “They all work together.”

The ASR wells added to the other CERP projects will provide an 80 percent reduction in the volume of harmful discharges, he said.

“Every bit of storage is going to help,” he said.

“I believe you need to do the ASR first,” said Mike Collins. “I am not saying don’t do the rest of it. You can provide benefit up front with the ASR wells. You can build some momentum. You can go back to the legislature. If they ask you ‘what did you do with the $50 million?’ and you tell them ‘we’re negotiating with some landowners’ or ‘we’re going to do some additional planning,’ I don’t think that is going to go over well. They have been listening to that garbage for 20 years. They were very specific about this.” He said the legislature wants to see results.

“You can’t allow concerns to override science and engineering,” he said. “You’re going to be dead in the water. It’s happened to other boards before.

“There are people who have very strongly held philosophies,” he said. “Some of those philosophies will stop you from getting where you want to go.”

He said negotiating for the land for the other projects will take years.

ASR provides incremental benefits right from the start, he said.

Steve Walker, representing the Seminole Tribe, the Tribe supports the goals of the LOWRP but does not support all of the means the corps has chosen to meet the goals.

“We support the wetland restoration piece. We support the ASR with some caveats,” he said.

He said the Tribe opposes the WAF, because they maintain it is too close to Brighton Reservation.

“A good portion of the eastern part of Brighton reservation would be flooded if this dike were to breach,” he said.

In regard to tribal cultural resources, there is one known site withing in the WAF footprint, he said. There are probably others.

The Tribal historical office maintains that a four-to-five year effort is needed to really catalog the cultural resources in this footprint.

“We support ASRs, if you were to follow the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences,” he said. “We would not support any ASR wells in the WAF footprint.

“Perhaps a larger issue with the WAF is that right now it is 4 feet deep,” he said. “There is going to be continued pressure to reduce flows to the reservoir. What starts out as a 4-foot reservoir could wind up a 20-foot reservoir, as is happening to the EAA.

“We are unwilling to have the Tribe accept the risk of catastrophic failure of that reservoir,” he said.

Thomas Van Lent of the Everglades Foundation said the foundation supports the projects in CERP.

“We’ve all been looking to restore Paradise Run,” he said. “That is an important thing to do.”

He said they don’t see a lot of benefits from the WAF as it is currently planned.

“The technology of ASR is pretty mature,” he said. “But is different about this is the scale.” He said they should use the funding to address the questions that need to be answered rather than jump in to building a project.

“From the Nature Conservancy’s prospective, the fact we have a National Academy of Science Study that took years and years of data that involved input from the state, from the federal governing, where they found that ASR is feasible against subject to some conditions and additional study, is important to the Nature Conservancy to suggest and encourage you to move forward and spend the money expeditiously on ASR,” said Beth Lewis of the Nature Conservancy of Florida said Nature Conservancy. “The estuaries need help and they need help quickly.

“We are also in support of moving forward with the ASR,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation. She said ASRs could provide quick relief in a few years, while the other components of the project are 20 years away.

“Living on St. Lucie estuary myself, we know that we need immediate relief,” she said.

“Water used to sit in the Kissimmee Basin and recharge and go down and filter. This is a little bit of a man made way of doing that,” she said.

“The estuaries need as much reduction in those harmful discharges as possible,” said Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society. “I am all about any project that can do that.”

He questioned why the LOWRP only encompasses the lower third of the watershed. He said 50 percent of the inflows come into the lake from the Kissimmee River. He questioned if 10 ASR wells would make a significant difference in the discharges to the estuaries.

Pete Quasisus with Audubon of the Western Everglades said ASRs work.

There are hundreds of ASR wells around the world, providing huge benefits in supplying water, he said.

“We know that every individual well we drill when you flip the switch is water that will not come down the Caloosahatchee,” he said.

“It is not flood protection. It’s insurance water. It allows us to manage the lake more effectively,” he said.

If the agricultural and other permitted users know there is water in the ground that can be used in times of drought, they will be more amenable to lower lake levels, which allows more marshes around the edges of the lake, he said.

“Let’s start with a couple of wells. Let’s find out what the science and engineering provides for us,” he said.

“We have a plan. We have money in hand. Let’s move forward.”

“You want to keep the estuaries from harm? You can do it,” said Newton Cook, of United Waterfowlers Florida.

“I recommend we spend the $50 million and put the ten in because they are a help,” he said.

“But when you have them all in, and all the other parts, you are going to spend several billion dollars for 14 to 16 percent reduction in the discharges.

“That is the reason why deep injection wells were considered. State funded, FDEP approved, proven technology, all you have to do is build the wells and you don’t even turn them on until the water is coming down the system during a rain event,” he said. “The ASRs cannot handle velocity of flow of the water that comes down the Kissimmee during a rain event because you have to treat the water before it goes into the well,” he said.

With deep injection wells, you turn them on, the water goes to the Boulder Zone, it goes to the Atlantic ocean.

“That is where the same water is going today out the C-43 and C-44 to the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

“Three hundred deep injection wells will do 9,000 cubic feet per second. You turn them on when you need them. All the water is not wasted. It’s going to sea. And guess what? You’ve solved 100 percent of the discharges to the estuaries,” said Mr. Cook.

“I am here to speak in favor of spending the $50 million for the 10 ASRs,” said Rich Budell. “It is a very proven technology. There are more than 200 in operation around the state, 24-7-365.

“The water won’t be coming back out of the ASRs at the same rate that it goes in,” he said.

“It only comes back out when the lake needs it, or you need it for water supply. You’re not going to be blowing out the estuaries with the water you are putting down in the well,” he said.

“The support for ASR is not just from this study. It has been a multi-year effort with the corps and SFWMD working with stakeholders to develop this CERP plan,” he said. In addition to the NAS report, the UF study conducted at the request of the Legislature in 2015 very much supported underground storage either through ASR or deep well injection.

He said Dr. Tom Frazer, who is now the state’s chief science officer, and Dr, Wendy Graham, who is on the Blue Green Algae Task Force, were involved with that UF study.

“This technology is not coming to you from a bunch of kooks,” he said. “These are really, really smart people who spent a lot of time working on this issue.”

“We strong oppose the ASR and deep well injection, particularly the deep well injection,” said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club.

“This isn’t going to solve the problem when you have a problem,” he said.

“You need open land storage where you can move water quickly,” Mr. Martin said.

“These projects come with a level of uncertainty,” said Reynoldo Diaz of Lake Worth Waterkeepers. “Cleaning it to drinking water standards sounds amazing. Cleaning it up enough for us to drink does not always clean it up enough for the environment.”

Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe said the corps hasn’t done their due diligence in responding to the concerns from the tribe about ASRs. She said the Miccosukee tribe is also not in favor of deep well injections.

Drew Bartlett, SFWMD executive director, said the language in the legislative bill providing the $50 million “doesn’t tell us to do ASR, but it does tell us to do what we can to reduce the harmful discharges.

“I need to dust off the National Academy of Sciences review and look at how they recommended going forward,” he said.

“We don’t have the land for the other projects. They gave us a gift of $50 million. We need to move forward carefully and methodically,” said Mr. Bartlett. He said he will look at land acquisition needed for the wetland restoration.

“No matter what project you are selecting, they call come with their own controversy,” he said.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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