Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration has awarded $4.6 million to test whether the concept — called aquifer storage and recovery — can protect drought-threatened wildlife and secure more water for Georgia without cutting into the supply available to neighboring Alabama and Florida. Federal regulators counted more than 1,200 such wells nationwide in a 2009 study, the latest available, serving communities in Las Vegas, southern California, New Jersey and South Carolina, to name a few.
Deal’s administration said it hopes to have enough information at the end of the project to make a decision on whether to implement it more widely. Construction could begin next month.
“Will it work? Can it work? Is the science there to back it up?” said Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff. “All these questions there are looming.”
Environmental groups fault the project because they say conserving water is cheaper than building new storage facilities. They also worry the tactic could release toxins into groundwater — a problem that occurred in Florida — and successfully fought legislation that would have banned people downstream from the pumps from using that water for their own purposes. They are skeptical of trading water in southwest Georgia so Atlanta can consume more.
“Does it make better sense for us to invest in water conservation and efficiency?” said April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network. “We say, ‘Yes.’ It’s ... always quicker, and it’s the least environmentally controversial way to provide for our water supply.”
The project was pitched to the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission, a government group, by a team of environmental lobbyists, financiers and developers. The initial goal is to build a specialized system of five wells at the Elmodel Wildlife Management Area, about 50 miles north of Florida. It should be capable of sending drinking-quality water into the Chickasawhatchee Creek.
Under the plan, a well would be drilled into the Floridan aquifer, an underground supply relatively close to the surface. Frequently tapped by farmers for irrigation, that aquifer can become depleted during droughts, lowering or even drying up smaller tributaries along the Flint River.
When rainfall is flush from late fall to early spring and farmers are not irrigating, water from the Floridan aquifer would be pumped into two aquifers deeper underground, where backers say it will stay. During dry periods, the water stored deep underground could be pumped upward and into dry streams and rivers.
Studies show underground water storage can be built for a fraction of the price of above-ground reservoirs without flooding large areas of land and losing water to evaporation. It’s not problem-free. Chemical reactions at wells in Florida released arsenic, a naturally occurring toxin, into the water. David Pyne, president of ASR Systems, which would design the system, said the technology is proven and that arsenic problems can be controlled if they arise.
“We know it’s going to work,” Pyne said. “The question is the people of Georgia need to be able to go there, kick the tires and see it’s going to work for them.”