Water officials: Deep injections wells does not mean 'fracking'

Wells already used at water plants across state
Posted at 7:22 PM, Feb 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-03 20:52:21-05

The South Florida Water Management Districtunveiled new plans this week to prevent the algae crisis, by sending Lake Okeechobee overflow underground deep injection wells.

The wells involve drilling 3,000 feet underground to dispose of the excess lake water within protected confinements in the aquifer called boulder zones.

The term "fracking" got a lot of people buzzing but the district has made clear their plan does not involve the controversial procedure.

There are about 180 deep injection wells in operation across the state of Florida, mostly used to dispose of wastewater at utility plants. WPTV got a tour of one of the wells at the Loxahatchee River District in Jupiter.

State and local water authorities want to take that same type of technology and put it in place at Lake Okeechobee. Officials clarified why the process is no where near the definition of fracking.

"You're intentionally breaking rocks, you're jamming sand into the features of that rock and then allowing the gas is two escape out and recover them. This is not fracking," said Albrey Arrington, executive director for the Loxahatchee River District.

Excess water at the river district is treated and held in several ponds around the property. That reclaimed water is also known as irrigated quality water, or "IQ" water, which is reused at residential communities, golf courses, public parks and recreational facilities.

But during the wet season, excess water from the storms -- combined with the millions of gallons of wastewater from the city that continues to pour in -- can no longer be contained within the storage ponds.

"All we're doing, we're storing and saving all of that valuable water until we don't have any more room to store it no we have to dispose of that water but only until as much as necessary to balance our total demand and supply issues," said Arrington. "When our storage is full, then that deep injection well really comes into play, because now that is our disposal mechanism."

But water state officials -- who want to use the same technology at Lake Okeechobee -- stress this isn't fracking.

"What is being proposed today is a known solution that's been used widespread in the waste water industry," said Arrington. "This well has existed since about 1986. It's a proven method to dispose of that excess water when there is nothing else that we have available to do with that water."

The definition of fracking also involves mixing brackish water with chemical and forcing it miles underground (as opposed to 3,000 feet) at hundreds or thousands of pounds per square inch.

Hydrogeologist Bob Verrastros with South Florida Water Management District said creating a deep injection well is is essentially digging a deep hole with pressure lower than 100 pounds per square inch.

"Whereas here, the injection wells we're intending to use, use very, very low pressures. So it's not intentionally fracturing the formation," he said, adding that the wells would be used in conjunction with various types of reservoirs and other storage technologies around the lake. "It's just one of the alternatives that we have when we have more water then we are capable of -- rather than having it go out to the estuaries and do harm."

Verrastro said deep injection wells can't be used just anywhere in the country because the Floridan aquifer below us is filled with unique formations.

"The nature of the boulder zone is something that we have that's very unique to South Florida that enables us to use this technology," he said.

The progress is welcome news for businesses devastated by the blue green algae.

"It crushed us, I mean it affected every business in town," said Brandon Damron, who works at Stuart Angler Bait & Tackle. "I don't understand why they didn't come up with a plan from the beginning to disperse this water and a clean way."

But others know the clock is ticking.

"We're hopeful, but there is still a lot of fingers being pointed and no one's really doing a whole lot," said Josh Good, a fisherman in Stuart.

The deep injection well project is still in the very early stages of planning and is still at least two years away from any kind of approval. Each well would cost $3 million to $5 million each, so the water district has to figure out exactly where to put the wells and how many they would need.

And if officials do get the green light on the project, there would be strict guidelines to follow.

"We permit the wells with the Department of Environmental Protection and they have a very stringent testing protocol that involves cutting cores, looking at the confining sequence, and doing packer tests to define what the hydraulic parameters of the aquifers are on the way down into the boulder zone," said Verrastro. "So we have to answer to the state on the way these wells will be operated and the injection rates and pressures we operate the wells at, to assure that they do not cause any harm to the aquifer itself."