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Water officials okay Ginnie Springs bottling plan after years-long battle

The permit will allow a company to pump nearly 1 million gallons a day from the aquifer
Divers and swimmers enjoy Ginnie Springs in High Springs in August 2016.
Divers and swimmers enjoy Ginnie Springs in High Springs in August 2016. [ GAINESVILLE SUN FILE/NEWS-JOURNAL | TNS ]
Published Feb. 23
Updated Feb. 23

Water management officials on Tuesday unanimously approved a permit for a company that wants to pump nearly 1 million gallons a day from Ginnie Springs to make bottled water, following a 2-year battle by environmentalists opposed to the plan.

Seven Springs Water has drawn water from underground High Springs for years. The renewed agreement will let the business continue pumping to meet demand from an associated bottling plant, which is increasing capacity.

With the Suwannee River Water Management District’s approval, the family-owned company can draw as much as 984,000 gallons of water a day out of the Floridan aquifer over the next five years.

“It poses a clear and present threat to Florida’s water supply and sets a dangerous precedent for our future,” said Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, D-Maitland, in a virtual news conference organized by environmental groups after the decision. “Having access to clean water is imperative to the health and safety of our state.”

A representative for Seven Springs, run by the Wray family that operates a popular camping and tubing business called Ginnie Springs Outdoors, did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment.

A spokeswoman for Nestlé Waters North America, which buys the water and runs the bottling plant, said it “will continue to take great care” to make sure the amount of water it purchases is sustainable for springs and wetlands. Nestlé recently announced it was selling brands including Zephyrhills water, but the spokeswoman said the plant in High Springs “will continue the same as it did pre-closing.”

The Water Management District’s decision follows months of delays. A state administrative judge ruled that officials should approve the permit, after disagreeing with the district’s claims that Seven Springs’ application was lacking on certain technical issues. About a year ago, district staff recommended the board deny the permit, and Seven Springs petitioned to bring the matter before a judge.

Nestlé was not listed as a co-applicant despite its importance to the operation, lawyers for the Water Management District argued. The bid for a renewed permit also first sought permission to draw more than 1 million gallons of water per day from the spring, even though records showed that across two decades, the facility never used more than an average of about 387,000 gallons per day at its peak.

The bottlers responded that they have spent millions of dollars adding lines and improving existing machinery. For instance, court records show, a new high-speed line can fill 81,000 half liter bottles in a single hour, compared to an older system that processes 54,000 bottles in that time. Seven Springs and water regulators eventually settled on a lower daily permit limit than initially requested — just shy of one million gallons a day.

The family behind Seven Springs, in the initial application, said such a total is less than one percent of the flow from the Ginnie Springs complex each day. They noted that local agricultural businesses use far more groundwater.

To environmentalists, any move to draw more water out of the aquifer is shortsighted. Longtime residents described how flows have dropped noticeably in their lifetimes and how anyone paddling the Ichetucknee or Santa Fe rivers can see the quality of the springs degrading. Dozens of opponents spoke before the vote Tuesday, reiterating concerns they had shared across thousands of comments over the last two years.

“Florida’s rivers and springs are the jewels of the kingdom,” said Jim Gross, a geologist who worked for two water management districts during his career and now leads Florida Defenders of the Environment. “Profligate water bottling is not in Florida’s long-term public interest.”

Critics highlighted projections that warn the state could face water shortages as its population expands and took special issue that millions of gallons would be pumped into bottles made of plastic, which pollutes nature already.

“Putting our spring water in bottles that are going to end up in the river, in oceans, in landfills — it’s just not a good use ... for our spring water that we know is already in danger,” said Michelle Colson, who said she spoke on behalf of divers and swimmers who dress as mermaids and frequent the springs.

The opponents outnumbered supporters of Seven Springs on Tuesday, but a few employees of the bottling operation called to say denying the permit might kill about 60 local jobs. A representative of Gilchrist County said that the plant accounted for 7 percent of the county’s ad valorem and property tax base.

“I just feel so lucky to be able to find a job within my own community,” said Bailee Osteen, who said she works in human resources for Nestlé. The permit, she said, “will not drain the springs, but what it will do is provide more clean drinking water.”

After the vote, Joe Little, a lawyer for Florida Defenders of the Environment, Our Santa Fe River and a couple of individual challengers said environmentalists might still pursue a lawsuit arguing the permit decision is not in the best interest of Florida’s residents.

“The people of Florida receive no monetary value,” he said. “To permit that to occur without requiring the monetary value of the water be paid to the State of Florida on behalf of the citizens and not to any private person is not consistent with the public interest.”