ATLANTA - A new project in southwest Georgia will test whether a network of pumps can boost the flow of depleted streams and rivers, a system that backers say could protect wildlife or, on a larger scale, ease long-running water conflicts with Alabama and Florida.
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."
Two reasons are cited for building the project. One is that putting more water into parched streams would protect mussels that die when streams run dry, said Harold Reheis, a former director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division who now works for a lobbying firm in charge of project permitting. If Georgia puts more water into the streams, federal wildlife authorities will be less inclined to try and restrict water usage to the detriment of the region's farmers, Reheis said.
"If it is relatively cost-effective to do, if there's a way to finance it, then there may be a solution there that ... makes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feel more comfortable," Reheis said.
There has been a second goal.
If successful, Georgia authorities see the project as a possible bargaining chip in negotiations with Alabama and Florida. Both states contend that metro Atlanta uses far too much water to the detriment of people, industry and wildlife downstream.
One such legal dispute focuses on the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which combine to form the Apalachicola River in Florida. The dispute reached a climax in 2009 when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, which is on the Chattahoochee River. He threatened to severely curtail the withdrawals unless the three states reached a political agreement.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed that decision, finding that metro Atlanta did have a right to take water from a disputed reservoir. That decision prevented an immediate water crisis for north Georgia, but the Deal administration has remained interested in developing new water sources in the long run.
When applying for state funding, project supporters envisioned a roughly $1 billion network of pumps that could significantly increase water flows on disputed rivers. That would increase the water available to communities in Alabama and Florida.
If more water reached neighboring states, project supporters said metro Atlanta could then seek to use more water from the Chattahoochee River. Officials in Florida and Alabama did not return calls seeking comment on the plan.
"In this regard, it is believed that stream flow augmentation will play some role in the resolution of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin dispute between Georgia and Florida," the commission said in its grant application.