SFWMD plans to send water to tide – down through the earth

WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board on Sept. 13 approved a plan to send excess freshwater from Lake Okeechobee down into the Boulder Zone instead of sending it to the coastal estuaries.

The board voted to move forward with test wells and exploration of a strategy that could further reduce damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries while larger Everglades restoration projects are completed.

Emergency Estuary Protection Wells would send excess water 3,000 feet straight down into the Boulder Zone, in effect sending it to tide without damaging the estuaries.

“With inconsistencies in federal funding causing delays to long-term restoration projects, Emergency Estuary Protection Wells serve as the most immediate and most beneficial option to provide relief to our northern estuaries during high-water emergencies,” said SFWMD Governing Board member

Brandon Tucker. “This board supports this proven, cost-effective technology while working toward the ultimate goal of getting large-scale Everglades restoration projects online.”

SFWMD staff briefed Governing Board members during their regular monthly business meeting Sept. 14 on the plan to create test wells to gather more information on the possible use of Emergency Estuary Protection Wells.

The wells would utilize deep injection technology to move water that would otherwise be released from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries 3,000 feet below ground into the Boulder Zone. The wells would be used only during high-water emergency situations such as the one currently caused by record May rainfall when the lake has risen so high that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has no other choice but to release water to the estuaries to protect residents from flooding. The wells would provide another outlet for that water that would protect the estuaries from environmental harm.

After the test wells gather more information that can be used to design a large-scale program to use the Emergency Estuary Protection Wells, the wells can be built and operational more quickly than large capital projects. Once completed, the wells would provide additional opportunities to protect against harmful discharges and can continue to work alongside restoration projects as they come on line.
Several major restoration projects that are part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are either under construction or in planning.
These projects rely on federal funding, which has fallen behind state efforts. These projects, once fully funded and constructed, are expected to help reduce about 80 percent of unwanted estuary releases made for flood control purposes. The Emergency Estuary Protection Wells will be used in the interim while these projects become operational and, furthermore, will be able to help reduce some of the remaining volume of estuary releases even after these restoration projects are complete.

At the Sept. 6 meeting of the Water Resources Advisory Coalition, SFWMD lead hydrologist Bob Verrastro said the wells can be built on land SFWMD already owns.

“EEWPs will only be used when needed. They won’t be used all the time,” he said. “Unlike a reservoir, it won’t fill with local rainfall.”

He said the Boulder Zone is a deep, sterile environment full of saltwater. “The conditions are quite different than exist on the surface,” he explained.

He said the water will be filtered before it is injected into the Boulder Zone.

“We don’t want to plug up the well with any materials that would make the Boulder Zone less favorable,” he said. “Once you put it down 3,000 feet, it’s hard to get it back up.”

Deep well injection is an old and proven technology, he said. It has been used to dispose of excess treated wastewater by utility companies in Florida for decades.

“West Palm Beach system wells have been pumping 24/7 for 20 years,” he said.

He said the void space within the aquifer itself makes for a very stable environment.

A 24-inch diameter well can typically pump about 15 million gallons of water per day.

EEPWs would work in conjunction with CERP, not instead of CERP, he said.

These wells are an alternative tool to reduce damaging discharges to the estuaries, he explained.

While the CERP projects will take decades to be completed, the EEPWs can provide relief to the coastal estuaries in five to 10 years, he explained. At the current state and federal funding levels, the integrated delivery schedule of the CERP projects won’t be finished until around 2070. Even after CERP is completed, the EEPWs would provide emergency capacity for extreme high water events.

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