It's an experiment on a vast scale, with Florida's hydrological future on the line.
Florida's economic future depends heavily on the continued availability of fresh, clean, affordable drinking water. Any measure that could endanger the state's already-stressed water supply should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Florida legislators dance nervously around that concept, paying lip service to conservation while knocking down restrictions that could help the protect the Floridan aquifer, the vast network of underground caverns the state relies on for fresh water.
The apparent goal: Keep Florida development from being hampered by concerns about available water in the short term, even though it could mean serious trouble for the state in decades to come.
The state needs solutions. But it shouldn't rush into reckless experimentation. Gov. Rick Scott's veto Friday of a bill that would have allowed large-scale injection of treated wastewater into Florida's aquifer gives the state a chance to explore this option cautiously, with limited test sites and scientific evaluation. Scott made the right call.
Opponents of the bill relied heavily on the gross-out factor, calling it the "toilet to tap" bill and asking if Scott wants to be known as "Gov. Poopy Water."
It's not that difficult to clean reclaimed water of what are euphemistically described as "bio-solids" before the water is injected into the aquifer; some cities, including ones in the U.S., already mix reclaimed water into their drinking-water supply. It's a far trickier task to ensure that other contaminants, including prescription medications, petroleum-based pollution, radioactive material and heavy metals, are removed from the water before it's forced into the state's water supply.
What will happen to those contaminants once the wastewater mixes with drinking-water supplies? Will it stay where it's put, or migrate to other parts of the aquifer, potentially spreading contamination? What will the impact be on Florida's freshwater springs and water bodies, which are already showing signs of trouble in higher bacteria counts and other pollutants? And what will happen to the soft limestone lacework of underground caves that comprise the aquifer? If the water is injected with too much force, will they be damaged?
The answers to these questions could indicate that Florida's found an affordable, sustainable way to secure its water supply. But the state doen't have those answers yet. The process the bill would have permitted, known as "aquifer storage and recovery," is only active in three states: Oregon, Colorado and Texas, where ASR wells are serving the water-starved cities of San Antonio, El Paso and Kerrville. None share Florida's unusual underground geology. When Florida was considering experimenting with aquifer storage in South Florida, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers raised multiple concerns.
In the long run, aquifer storage and recovery might be the right answer for Florida. But diving headfirst into the practice -- in a state with multiple other options on the table, including capturing some of the billions of gallons of fresh rainwater that fall on the state every year -- should be approached with extreme caution. By wielding his veto pen, Scott hit the reset button, not the kill switch.