News-Press

Nov. 27, 2017

State moving ahead with water plan, without feds

By: Chad Gillis,

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2017/11/24/state-moving-ahead-water-plan-without-feds/886063001/

The state appears to be moving forward with deep injection well sites north of Lake Okeechobee, but it's doing so without support from the federal government or environmental groups. 

The idea is to send water from high rain events and hurricanes down to 3,000 feet or more below the surface to cut back on Lake Okeechobee releases, which often blow out coastal estuaries in the Fort Myers and Stuart areas. 

"Last month the board was very enthusiastic about the option of deep injection wells, and I trust that staff is moving forward with this so that we will be able to implement this ASAP," South Florida Water Management District governing board member Jim Moran said at a recent public meeting.

"We are making progress," said Ernie Marks, the district's top staffer. 

Deep injection wells are used in many areas of Florida, Cape Coral being a local example. The city pumps billions of gallons freshwater each year to the boulder zone rather than releasing it down the Caloosahatchee River. 

But these wells are not part of the Everglades restoration, an umbrella of projects aimed at restoring historic flows in the Everglades while also cleaning up South Florida's waterways and coastal estuaries. 

Moran and others have pushed the idea of using these wells to capture water before it flows into Lake Okeechobee, which in theory would cut down on the amount of damaging freshwater releases during high rain events. 

That water, though, would be lost forever. So instead of replumbing the Everglades to mimic historic conditions, deep well injection sites would simply get rid of the water — water that is needed by the ecosystem during the dry season. 

"The Corps has decided that we’re not going to move forward with deep injections wells," said John Campbell, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman stationed in Jacksonville. "We want more regional analysis as how this might fit into ecosystem restoration as a whole. A lot of the discussion (about Everglades restoration) was about how to take water and reroute it to meet ecological goals, and some people might argue that doesn’t meet that criteria because the water is lost."

Without Corps support, the water management district will have to pay for all costs associated with any deep injection well sites in the historic Everglades. 

Typically the Water Management District and Army Corps split restoration costs 50/50, but the Corps will not give money or resources to this idea, Campbell said. 

"Those deep injection wells won’t be something that gets any further evaluation," Campbell said. 

Deep injection wells have gotten little public support as well. 

Rae Ann Wessel with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation said these types of wells are untested on a large scale. 

"It’s not restoration," Wessel said. "You take a critical freshwater resource when you have abundance and you put it in the boulder zone. I think some people think of the boulder zone is some type of magic place you can just send water and nothing will happen." 

Again, these type of wells exist on a smaller scale, but Wessel and others worry the technology would be dangerous if used as part of the Everglades restoration. 

"This is very risky," Wessel said. "You’re talking about pressure and volume that’s never been conceived of. We’re talking about something we’ve never tried before. People say we have all these wells, and we do, but they’re much, much smaller in volume."

Water Management District officials say the wells will be low-pressure systems and that they won't be any larger than individual systems already used in areas like Cape Coral and Jupiter, the last of which does discharge storm water to the boulder zone. 

"This is not in any form or fashion going to be high-pressure injection," said district spokesman Randy Smith. "This is a very low pressure injection well that’s using storm water runoff, not wastewater."