For decades, the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa has sold itself as a virtual heaven on earth, "where healing waters flow."
Swimming pools with natural mineral spring water. Spa treatments using the magical wonder that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto called the "Fountain of Youth."
"The springs serve as the primary source of water for our resort, used in the pools, restaurant, and, of course, the spa,'' according to the resort's Web site.
These days, the source of that spa water is a little murky. Is it the highly touted natural spring water or plain old Safety Harbor tap water?
The amount of water pumped from the springs has been declining by hundreds of thousands of gallons over the past five years. But the spa is using millions of gallons of city tap water.
It pumped 74,000 gallons of spring water in January, 6,000 gallons in February and 47,400 in March. Five years ago, the figures were 605,900, 321,400 and 688,900, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
On Friday, in response to media inquiries, the water district questioned the resort about its spring water use.
Robyn Felix, spokeswoman for the water district, said the state was told, "The only spring water they're using is for bottled water and the restaurant. They're permitted to do that. The rest of the water they're using comes from the city of Safety Harbor."
On Monday, after the St. Petersburg Times asked the resort about the water in the pools and spa, Felix said the water district received another call from the resort:
"They said they use some water to fill the pools, the spa and for laundry purposes," she said.
Kathy Gaye, a vice president and spokeswoman for the resort, said she could not explain the huge drop in the amount of water pumped from the springs.
She said the resort uses spring water in its spa facilities and several indoor facilities, including its whirlpools and lap pool.
"We have always used the mineral springs water in the spa in that way," Gaye said. "The only pool that it is not in is our leisure pool."
The resort's permit says the spring water can be used only for bottled water, not the other uses.
Given the spa's most recent statement, the water district told the resort it must modify its permit to include other uses, Felix said.
The resort already had been issued a notice to update its permit because it was under a previous owner's name.
The current owner, Olympia Development Group, took over the resort in December 2004.
The 60-year-old resort has drawn national attention for its facilities.
The site, visited by the likes of magician Harry Houdini, has been recognized as a historical landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Florida Heritage Landmark.
De Soto found the five springs (called Espiritu Santo Springs, or Springs of the Holy Spirit) that are part of the 22-acre resort and declared it the "Fountain of Youth." De Soto's find was painted as the one missed by Juan Ponce de Leon on his quest for magical waters.
The resort is home to 175 guest rooms and suites. It includes three swimming pools, a 50,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, and 30,000 square feet of conference space.
Starting at $199 a night, visitors can experience the resort's offerings — from the swimming pools to the Aveda concept spa.
It is one of Safety Harbor's major businesses — and water users.
The state allows the resort to pump as much as 100,000 gallons of spring water a day, or roughly 3-million gallons a month, for bottling. Actual usage in recent months has averaged about 42,000 gallons.
While pumping has declined, the resort used 2.5-million gallons of city tap water in March and 1.9-million gallons in February, according to the city of Safety Harbor. The spa is one of the top three water users in the city.
"It's no shock to us that they're one of the larger users of water," said city spokesman Brad Purdy.
Jim Stevenson, one of the state's leading experts on springs, said while the fuss over the benefits of the natural mineral spring water dates to the days of the famed explorers, much of it appears to be more myth than anything else.
He said de Leon believed the springs would give men more vitality. "I guess we could have called the spring, Viagra Springs," he said.
But does it matter more than tap?
"I wouldn't think so," Stevenson said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-892-2332.