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County aims to tap water supply deep underground

Sun-Sentinel - 1/19/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Joel Hood

Palm Beach County officials hope they've found the long-term solution to their water needs 1,000 feet below the Earth's surface.

The county's water utilities department wants to build 16 deep-water wells in and around Loxahatchee Groves to tap into a salty water reservoir trapped in rock that was on the ocean's floor 30 million years ago. They want to pump water directly from the Floridan Aquifer into a planned water treatment center in Royal Palm Beach, eventually freeing 20 million gallons of drinking water a day for the growing western communities.

The proposal represents the depths county officials are willing to plunge to serve the expected demand for water over the next 20 years. The need is particularly great out west, where county officials are considering adding 26,000 homes or more by 2030.

But some water experts are urging caution, saying there is a lot researchers don't know about the water quality and quantity at that depth. They wonder about the environmental impact on the aquifer, which acts as a holding tank for storm water collected for use during the dry season. And they don't know whether human waste stored at lower depths could rise into the aquifer, contaminating the drinking supply.

"There's a lot of questions we just don't have answers for yet," said Chris Langevin, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Lauderdale. "There's been talk of doing a study of the Floridan Aquifer, but nothing comprehensive has been done. Not in South Florida."

For decades, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties have mined most of their drinking water from the shallower Biscayne Aquifer at a depth of about 150 feet. But with so many utilities pumping water from the same supply, the South Florida Water Management District recently asked counties to explore alternative water sources.

That search has led Palm Beach and Broward counties, as well as cities such as Fort Lauderdale, to the Floridan Aquifer beneath hundreds of feet of nearly impenetrable clay and limestone. Fort Lauderdale, which supplies water to all or parts of six communities, was awarded a $325,000 grant from the water district to help build two new wells into the Floridan Aquifer and explore other water alternatives.

"It's a water source that certainly has its advantages, but a lot of uncertainties too," said David Lee, director of water resources for Broward. "But obviously something needs to be done."

Water utilities officials in Palm Beach County have asked for rights to build 11 deep-water wells in the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District over the next five to 10 years. The wells would be similar to those recently completed in the Belle Glade region for about $1 million apiece, said the county's utilities director Bevin Beaudet. Those wells will not begin pumping until a new water treatment plant is built. But when it's completed, it is expected to be a part of a network of these deep-water wells across the west, Beaudet said.

In addition to those in the Groves, the county wants to build five others in surrounding areas. The wells would pump water into a proposed treatment plant on the site of the Royal Palm Beach plant, Beaudet said. The future plant would cleanse the salty Floridan Aquifer water by reverse osmosis and would be big enough to provide water to about 90,000 people, he said.

However, board members on the Groves water district and some residents have raised concerns about the potential environment impact of the deep-water wells and whether they would drain shallower wells already in use.

"This is not to serve existing people. It's to spur growth out west," said Groves resident Bill Louda, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Florida Atlantic University. Louda presented a lengthy list of environmental and political concerns over deep-water wells to county officials Thursday. To quell the growing debate, Beaudet sent a memo to County Commissioner Jess Santamaria reiterating that deep-water wells would not affect surface water or existing wells.

But Beaudet admits there could be other complications. South Florida communities commonly store excess storm water at similar depths in the Floridan Aquifer and inject human waste at levels of around 3,000 feet. Experts wonder about the environmental impact caused by these conflicting demands on the aquifer system.

Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, said there will always be risks tapping into new sources of water.

"The [Floridan] is generally thought of as a safe alternative," Smith said. "But we've got to continue to look for better solutions."