JEKYLL ISLAND — The underground aquifer that coastal Georgia relies on for its main source of drinking water was considered so pristine that state lawmakers 15 years ago declared it off-limits to well drillers looking for a place to stash extra water for use in periods of drought.
That's not the case anymore. The moratorium imposed to protect the Floridan aquifer in 11 Georgia counties, those along and closest to the state's 100-mile coast from Savannah to St. Marys, lapsed July 1 after an attempt in the Legislature to make the regional ban permanent was put on hold.
Now area water managers and residents, business organizations and environmental groups are debating whether a relatively small corner of the state — just 7 percent of its 159 counties — should be closed altogether to a technology other states are increasingly turning to. Called "aquifer storage and recovery," or ASR for short, it uses wells that draw water from rivers during peak flows and inject it underground to save up for droughts.
But in some cases underground water banking can pollute aquifers with arsenic when dissolved oxygen in the injected water reacts with heavy metals in the rock, or injection equipment can sometimes introduce bacteria or chemicals from disinfectants into the aquifer, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"I'd be mad as the devil if someone put an ASR well in our area and contaminated the Floridan aquifer," Pete Peterson, who has his own well-drilling business in Effingham County outside Savannah, said last week during a legislative study committee hearing on the issue at Jekyll Island. "But I have to say, we can't hold up technology."
The EPA says more than 540 water-banking wells have been installed in the U.S., largely in arid southwestern states like Arizona and Nevada and coastal states including California, Texas and Nevada. Proponents say storing water in underground aquifers is more efficient than building expensive reservoirs that take up real estate above ground.
What's made coastal Georgia particularly uneasy about underground water storage? While the vast Floridan aquifer sprawls over 100,000 square miles beneath all of Florida plus coastal portions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, the Georgia coast sits over a portion known to be a sweet spot for particularly pure water.
"Our water quality is extremely high," said James Reichard, a geology professor at Georgia Southern University who specializes in hydrogeology. "What sets us apart a little bit differently here on the coast of Georgia is that we're dealing with a pristine aquifer that's our principle water supply. When you're using this as storage, there's a higher risk."
Coastal Georgia lawmakers were spurred into action back in 1999 when a private company in Savannah sought a permit to pump treated river water from the Ogeechee River into the aquifer — and then sell the stored water to customers. State lawmakers agreed to put the practice on hold, but only temporarily.
State Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, sought to make aquifer banking off-limits permanently for the coastal region last year. But the Senate Natural Resources Committee sent his bill to a study committee for further review. That move essentially let the ban lapse at the beginning of July.
Ligon has vowed to keep up the fight, no matter what the study committee's findings. Meanwhile, the state Environmental Protection Division says it hasn't permitted any aquifer banking in the state. It's preparing a $5 million pilot project to test the technology in the Flint River system of southwest Georgia, where the aquifer is closer to the surface and its water is less pure.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is supporting further study on water banking in the state, where a growing population is taxing the water supply and drought periods can cripple agriculture. Russ Pennington, policy and public affairs director for the state EPD, said he's confident it can be done safely as long as the chemistry of river water being stored is carefully matched to the geology of specific aquifer sites to minimize pollution.
"If done efficiently and looking at site-specific conditions, it could be a part of that answer," Pennington said.