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ASR in Georgia: Past, Present and Future

May 15, 2013

There are no operational aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects in Georgia.  A moratorium on ASR operations in coastal Georgia’s Floridian aquifer has been in place since 1999; the moratorium will expire in 2014.  Drillers previously conducted an ASR experiment in northwest Georgia (Coosa River basin) between 2009 and 2012.  Today, an ASR and stream-flow augmentation project is currently in development in southwest Georgia (Flint River basin).

ASR Moratorium: Coastal Georgia

In 1996, TSG (The Savannah Group Water Services) – a water supply company, applied for three surface water withdrawal permits with a combined surface withdrawal of 131 MGD from the Ogeechee, Altamaha and Savannah Rivers.  After Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) rejected the initial request, TSG modified their applications – which had already included an ASR project that would utilize Ogeechee River surface water and injection into the Floridian aquifer.

However, grassroots opposition to the withdrawals and ASR proposal forced the General Assembly to institute a moratorium between 1999 and December 2002 on ASR projects that would inject water into the Floridian aquifer beneath eleven coastal Georgia counties (HB 502).  In 2003, then-EPD director Harold Reheis noted (see p. 123), “ASR can be a viable” water supply option, “but it got off to a bad start” in Georgia.  “Anyone who tries ASR in the future will face an uphill battle.”  This moratorium has been extended multiple times, most recently in 2009 (HB 552) and is set to expire in July 2014.

EPD’s “Sound Science Initiative” continues to evaluate water supply opportunities for coastal Georgia.  ASR Systems, LLC has provided ASR research assistance to this initiative (p. 13-14).

ASR Experiment Fails: Northwest Georgia

On April 29, 2013, GPB’s Orlando Montoya originally reported that aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) “has been used nationwide…but never in Georgia.”   In fact, ASR was previously tested in northwest Georgia – and failed – by some of the same special interests promoting the Flint River ASR experimental project. While there was initial media coverage of the northwest Georgia ASR project in 2009, there has been no media reporting on the project’s failure to meet expectations.

ASR Systems, LLC – in partnership with Dalton Utilities (DU) – financed and managed drilling of two exploratory ASR wells on land owned by DU.  The sites were selected because it was thought the geology under DU land would produce the intended results.  The goal was to develop wells that would inject treated surface water underground during periods of high flow and recover water during drought periods.

At the time, the ill-fated ASR experiment was justified with the same language the public is hearing today regarding the Flint River ASR experiment: resolve the tri-state water war; reservoir cost v. ASR cost; no need for US Army Corps 404 permit.  However, according to ASR Systems (p. 12), “following completion of the test wells…cumulative yields of less than 100 gpm” were “considered to be insufficient… to justify further development.

Subsequently, ASR Systems and DU identified two additional test well sites that are assumed to be closer to a geologic formation more favorable for ASR operations.  But with no more no more money available, DU decided not to explore ASR options any further and ASR Systems turned to southwest Georgia for more exploration.

ASR and SB 213: Southwest Georgia

With an ASR moratorium set to expire in coastal Georgia and a failed ASR project in northwest Georgia, ASR Systems and EPD have a lot riding on the Flint River ASR project.  To complicate the uphill battle, the Flint experiment has its own baggage.

In short, the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (SWGRC) submitted a Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) application for a $13.5 million experimental “large flow augmentation project” in the Flint and Chattahoochee River basins.  The SWGRC apparently considered the project because Joe Tanner & Associates (Reheis’ current employer) “approached” the SWGRC with a plan.  After evaluating the application and despite finding no “need” for the project, the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) extended a $4.6 million state direct investment from the GWSP to the SWGRC for a revised stream flow augmentation project in the Flint River basin that could be applied elsewhere.

It’s important to understand that this stream flow augmentation “demonstration” project will be different from the northwest Georgia experiment.  The Flint ASR project will suck surface water through stream banks and the Upper Floridian aquifer during periods of high stream flow and inject that water into the deep Claiborne and Clayton aquifers for storage.  Then during periods of low flow, the water will be recovered from the deep aquifers and put into Flint River tributaries.  Read the Scope of Work here.

Project justification.  According to the 2012 SWGRC application, “A key element of this Project when fully implemented, is a suggested ‘water exchange’” that will benefit metro Atlanta.  At full build-out the ASR project’s water “would be made available to metro Atlanta.”  Under this proposal, highly productive southwest Georgia farmers would be forced to send water into Florida so that Metro Atlanta can use more water upstream.

How will the SWGRC pay for a full-scale $900 million to $1.2 billion ASR system and water exchange?  The applicant’s long‐term goal is to turn the demonstration project into 30 operating wells on public and private land that will be paid for with “local water utility revenues.”  Which local water utilities? “Metro Atlanta utilities may be willing to support the issuance of bonds to finance construction” of the ASR project.  The project could add to Metro Atlanta water supply but at an extremely high cost that is projected to fall on Metro utility ratepayers, who already pay the highest water bills in the state.

As I have written about before, SB 213 and the Flint River ASR projects are connected.  If the stream “augmentation” language remains in SB 213, then the water that is deposited back into the Flint River tributaries during ASR operations will not be available to riparian property owners downstream.  SB 213 provides statutory protection for an experimental, speculative and expensive ASR scheme that may not work while significantly changing Georgia water law and property rights.

Georgia’s environmental policy staff – from the EPD director on down the line – freely admit the ASR project is experimental and the outcomes are unknown.  And because it’s not clear the project will work, EPD does not recommend setting any ASR policy before the project’s results are known, which are not expected until the year 2016.  With such a long timeline, why does EPD support the stream augmentation language in SB 213?  If there is truly no need to put the cart before the horse, as the EPD director has said, then there is no reason to change Georgia’s water law.  Or is there?

Looking Ahead

If the Flint ASR experiment succeeds and the coastal moratorium expires, then Georgia will likely begin pushing ASR solutions on the coast to avoid a looming bi-state water war with South Carolina.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, over-pumping of groundwater from the Upper Floridian aquifer is allowing saltwater to intrude into the aquifer shared by the two states.  ASR Systems previously designed and built an ASR system in South Carolina that injects treated surface water (from the Savannah River) underground for storage (p. 6).  But unless the two states agree to a resolution – South Carolina and Georgia reportedly are sitting on their tentative proposals – South Carolina has threatened to take Georgia to court.

One need look no further than the SWGRC’s 2012 GWSP application for evidence of the consultants’ – and perhaps EPD’s – next targets: “Outside of the Flint River Basin, the [ASR] flow augmentation approach could be applied directly or indirectly via tributaries to the Suwannee River, Coosa River or the Savannah River.”  In order for ASR-fed stream flow augmentation projects to succeed in the Flint or the Savannah river basins – and that’s assuming ASR would even work there – Georgia’s legislature will have to change a long-standing regulated riparian legal tradition.  And that is exactly what SB 213 could accomplish and why the bill must not survive the 2014 legislative session.

The recent news that the SWGRC will pull out of the Flint River ASR scheme also reveals the shell game.  And this turn of events adds to the tempest swirling around SB 213.

-Chris Manganiello

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