MARCO ISLAND — Water is an easy thing to take for granted when you live on an island surrounded by it.
So it’s a good thing that the city’s water utility has about 2 billion gallons of fresh water stored, especially as the dry season approaches and the population doubles. That water is sitting in a bubble — below ground.
The city’s aquifer storage and recovery system just completed its 10-year testing and operations phase. Its success makes it the only project of its kind in the world, according to the National Ground Water Association (NGWA). Now the system is also winning awards for both innovation and conservation.
On Dec. 8, the NGWA will honor the city with an Outstanding Project award for innovation.
And the city also won another award from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers in Washington, D.C. for the aquifer’s environmental sustainability.
Rony Joel, general manager of the city’s water utility, is hopeful the system can be adopted elsewhere.
“Once we worked through the issues, we wanted to let the industry learn from our experience and we began to publish papers on it.”
The Marco aquifer is unique in the way it works with the surrounding environment. The system uses the natural overflow of groundwater from Henderson Creek. The water flows into several lakes near the U.S. 41/Collier Boulevard intersection. The water is filtered and pumped into an underground brackish aquifer.
“The different densities between the fresh and saltwater create a bubble,” explains Joel.
He says about 80 percent of the stored water is recovered and requires minimal treatment, making the project uniquely successful.
It is crucial, believes Joel, because storing such a volume of water above ground would be unfeasible.
Prior to the aquifer project, the city had become dependent on the desalinization of brackish groundwater. As the demand grew, costs to treat the water rose along with negative environmental impacts as the water source depleted.
“We are always doing strategic planning for our long-term water supply,” says Joel. “Without this system we could not meet the current demands of the Island in the dry season.”
In early 2010, the project was granted a permit to expand to seven wells. After the extensive, 10-year testing and operations phase, in compliance with extensive regulations, the system was proven compatible and safe for the brackish natural aquifer where the water is stored.
Clarence Tears, director of the South Florida Water Management District’s Big Cypress Basin, explained that South Florida Water Management District has been a long-time financial supporter of the project as part of its water conservation mission.
“Marco Island is in the forefront with this project by using the natural tidal flow and storing the water. This is fresh water that would normally just be lost into the Gulf. It’s like a bank account,” says Tears.