Despite critics, Georgia lays groundwork to manage aquifer storage

The idea of using underground aquifers to stash extra surface water for dry times or thirsty needs has raised enough hackles over the years that lawmakers at one point banned the practice in coastal Georgia.

The stage may be set for its comeback.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division has published a draft report outlining its authority to allow and manage what’s known as “aquifer storage and recovery.”

Often referred to as ASR, the practice involves injecting treated surface water into existing underground formations — often mixing it with an aquifer’s own natural supply of fresh water — and then using a well to withdraw it in times of need.

State environmental officials in the past have indicated that allowing this kind of underground storage could be a safe and effective way to help ease water shortfalls due to population growth and drought — both of which have left marks in Georgia.

Critics say the safety and effectiveness of banking water in underground aquifers has already been called into question.

In some cases, it has polluted aquifers with arsenic as dissolved oxygen in the injected water reacted with heavy metals in the rock. In other cases, bacteria or chemicals from disinfectants have been introduced into the water including through the injection equipment, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The state has no rules that are meant to specifically regulate ASR proposals from start to finish.

The new report, instead, makes clear the agency believes it can oversee any such project using existing state law and rules already designed to protect Georgia’s water supplies, including underground sources of drinking water.

It also calls for additional steps to be taken to improve both the oversight process and the public’s understanding and involvement in it. Those steps include a call for the agency to prepare written instructions of required steps and a need to designate a point person within the agency to help coordinate permitting and communication.

“I think it will have the effect of having us be better prepared if or when an aquifer storage and recovery project is proposed in Georgia,” said Gail Cowie, assistant branch chief of the EPD’s Watershed Protection Branch.

“It’s not intended to streamline or expedite” such projects, Cowie said, but it is meant to ensure the rules are clear — including how the agency planned to evaluate a project’s potential impact on the environment and community around it.

The agency undertook the effort at the request of state lawmakers last year in order to understand whether current regulations were enough to protect aquifers and water supply sources if ASRs were allowed. Public comment on the findings will be accepted through Aug. 14. State officials expect to present it to the state Board of Natural Resources at a regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 27.

Other states, including Florida, have increasingly embraced the concept. By the start of this decade, federal environmental officials counted more than 540 water-banking ASR wells across the nation.

Georgia, however, has in the past largely viewed the projects with suspicion.

Coastal lawmakers in 1999 imposed a 15-year moratorium on the technology after a private Savannah company sought a permit to pump treated river water into the vast Floridan aquifer, which is the region’s main source of drinking water and also sprawls under parts of Alabama, South Carolina and all of Florida.

But the regional ban on the coast expired in 2014 under renewed interest in what proponents say is a better use of resources than building expensive above-ground reservoirs. Those projects, as officials in Georgia have already discovered, are extremely costly propositions. They often take a decade or more to plan and receive permits, and after millions of dollars are spent, local governments often find they don’t need them due to population fluctuations.

But Georgia over the past decade has also experienced devastating drought, including one that once left metro Atlanta with less than 90 days of water supply. The state’s vast agricultural industry has also suffered under those conditions. ASRs in theory could be a way to address those different needs, although they have limitations.

In Georgia, groups including the state chamber of commerce have supported further study of the concept. But further study so far has been much different than reality.

Only two ASR projects have gotten underway here in the past decade, and both involved only pilot or exploratory projects. One, sponsored by Dalton Utilities between 2009 and 2012, included ASR test wells in northwest Georgia. The other included an ASR test project sponsored by the state between 2013 and 2015 in southwest Georgia.

Neither worked well enough to justify continuing.

There are no pending applications for an ASR project in Georgia, and state environmental officials say they are not aware of any plans for such projects in the state.

In Georgia, concerns about letting the technology loose has made for strange bedfellows. State Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, a staunch conservative, reiterated last week that he wants to see a moratorium on ASRs reinstated for the Floridan aquifer.

A number of Georgia environmentalists, meanwhile, have criticized the state’s plans as not going far enough. Their concerns include potential constraints in the permitting process that could limit public input on a project, as well as the fact that a report made to the board — which is all state lawmakers required when they requested it — falls short of newly designed regulations specifically for ASRs.

They also said they believe the report will pique the interest of developers to propose new projects.

“What we really want is a ban,” said Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper. “Short of that, we want an ironclad regulatory process. And short of that, we would like to see everything they have put into a formal policy memo signed by the director of EPD.”

It’s not clear whether state officials would support any of those steps, but Rogers said that while he understood “adding another layer of regulation is not politically popular, I would add polluting people’s property is not politically popular, either.”

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