Clear path to aquifer opens for pollution

By Robert Sargent and Ramsey Campbell
 Orlando Sentinel  July 7, 2002

Making Florida livable has meant getting water out of the way to make room for more homes, businesses and roads. South Florida pioneers did that job with levees and canals to steer water out to sea.

Orlando's early residents took a different route to flood control -- they decided to put the water underground. In the early 1900s, landowners began digging the first of about 400 wells to flush excess rainwater into the aquifer.

But today, the consequences of that decision worry some scientists, who fear the wells have inadvertently given pollutants access to the same underground water system that supplies drinking water.
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As metropolitan Orlando has developed, the rainwater flushed underground is picking up more oil, pesticides, fertilizers and other contaminants as it washes over parking lots, roads and yards.

"Everything from dog feces to beer cans goes straight down," said long-time Orlando water expert Henry Swanson.

Scientists are studying what happens to the pollution once it gets underground, such as how far it travels and whether it is cleansed, diluted or killed in the dark, oxygen-deprived crevices of the aquifer.

Some suspect that based on past studies, the wells -- which are usually more than 12 inches in diameter and average about 400 feet deep -- pose little threat to the deeper areas where public drinking water comes from. Many wells also are next to lakes, so pollutants have a chance to be diluted before they go underground.

But the wells that pose the most danger are those that give polluted storm runoff a direct shot into the aquifer.

"We're getting more cars on the roads, more oil and gas to run in to the drainage wells along with other pollution," said Alex Alexander, a former state Department of Environmental Protection chief in the Orlando region who has campaigned to close some wells. "There is a very strong possibility -- no one knows when -- something bad will happen. It's almost inevitable."

Some shallow, private drinking wells already are polluted.

In 1997, a drainage well on Lake Johio in Ocoee contaminated several supply wells and forced residents to hook up to the city's water utility. And in the early 1960s, a drainage well at Lake Pleasant south of Apopka contaminated several nearby wells.

Because of the risks of contamination, in 1965 the state halted construction of new drainage wells. But Central Florida's existing wells stayed open, flushing polluted water into the ground with every large storm.

The idea of closing many of the wells would protect the drinking water, but the price has grown too high. Major flooding and an even worse drinking-water shortage would occur. Scientists estimate the wells contribute 39 million to 52 million gallons of water to the aquifer each day.

Stuck with the problem, state environment agency workers have closed just five of the most dangerous wells and put treatment systems on 50 more to reduce pollutants.

But the potential for major contamination of the aquifer remains, Alexander says.

"Then what will happen?" he asked. "What will we do?"

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