Companies bottle and sell Florida’s spring water. Should the state get paid?

A debate around Ginnie Springs has invigorated activists who say Florida overuses the aquifer.
Solomon McKinley, 56, an employee at a water bottling plant in Zephyrhills in 2007, inspects bottles moving toward a packaging area.
Solomon McKinley, 56, an employee at a water bottling plant in Zephyrhills in 2007, inspects bottles moving toward a packaging area. [ Times (2007) ]
Published March 11, 2021|Updated March 11, 2021

When water managers decided last month to let a private company pull nearly a million gallons a day from Ginnie Springs for a plastic bottling plant, environmentalists were outraged.

Some said they plan to file a lawsuit. Their novel argument is to ask, essentially: What’s in it for us?

The multi-year controversy over the permit application in High Springs has invigorated activists who say businesses are overusing the aquifer, to the detriment of the state’s sparkling rivers and springs. If private companies profit off Florida’s water, they say, then Florida should at least get paid.

“It’s a simple idea, but it’s a new idea,” said Joseph Little, a University of Florida law professor emeritus who is considering filing the suit. He wants residents to wonder: “Holy mackerel, who owns this water? It’s not owned by the person who happens to own a piece of land. The water doesn’t just fall on this piece of land. The water is flowing underground.”

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

Little and other advocates unsuccessfully fought a permit application by Seven Springs Water, which can pump up to 984,000 gallons a day from around Ginnie Springs for the next five years, to be sold to Nestlé Waters North America for bottling. Seven Springs is affiliated with the Wray family, which runs a popular camping and tubing resort and controls land along the Santa Fe River in High Springs. The bottling operation has been in place for years.

The company paid a $115 fee to apply for a permit, records show. Critics say that’s about all the public gets from the deal, while Seven Springs profits greatly through its contract with Nestlé.

“You’re giving away something that belongs to us,” said Little, who has represented Florida Defenders of the Environment, Our Santa Fe River, himself and another resident.

A representative of the Wray family did not reply to an email or phone call seeking comment.

In a petition filed to the District before its board unanimously approved the permit, Little cited state law to argue that letting a private company pump water without paying the state a fair rate does not serve the public interest. He asked regulators to stop approving such permits. A spokeswoman for the District said that request would require new legislation, which is outside the water board’s control.

Little did not recommend a price for the water.

How do you even begin to set a cost for a resource many environmentalists consider invaluable?

Two bills introduced by Democratic state lawmakers this year propose different fees. Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, has suggested a 12.5-cent excise tax on every gallon pumped for bottling. The revenue would go into a fund, she said, that would help pay for replacing leaky septic systems causing pollution across the state.

Taddeo said her rate is based on what a bottling company could pay if it were to get water from a municipal tap supplier. She compared taxing water to fees placed on some industrial rock minerals, like phosphate, and oil.

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“Any single industry that gets any of our minerals, they pay,” Taddeo said. “Why is water — which is much more precious — why do we let them have it for free?”

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 ]

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, has pitched a 5-cent fee per gallon on water used for bottling. She said 10 cents would be too high for other lawmakers to support and 2 cents would be too low to encourage conservation, so she settled on a nickel. Her bill would steer the money to water management districts.

“It just started ticking me off when I read the amount of water that Nestlé drains,” Cruz said.

A Nestlé spokeswoman said the company does pay for the water, but that money goes to Seven Springs. It’s not clear how much. The corporation says the cost is similar to what municipal water purchasers pay in cities like Tampa and Gainesville. When staff for the Water Management District asked for a copy of the bottling plant contract, Seven Springs said the paperwork contains business information and parts that are subject to a non-disclosure agreement.

Taddeo’s proposal has been criticized by a national research group called the Tax Foundation. Ulrik Boesen, a senior analyst for the Foundation, wrote that the bill would place an unfair cost on a small group of companies bottling water, while doing nothing to encourage conservation from far bigger users of water like farms that deploy it for irrigation. Unlike oil and natural gas, he said, some water can be a renewable resource that eventually returns to nature.

Seven Springs, in its original permit application, wrote that the amount of water pumped for the bottling plant each day is less than 1 percent of the flow of nearby springs. The company said local agricultural operations can use up to about 29 million gallons a day, according to District data, or potentially more than 20 percent of the flow.

“It’s one of those things where lawmakers are looking to the tax code for solutions, where if there are issues with the water table, issues with the sustainability of these activities, regulation is probably where you should be looking,” Boesen said.

Bottling companies, he said, already help the economy. Sprinkled among the many commenters who asked the District to deny the permit were a handful of supporters last month, including workers at the plant who said about 60 people could lose their jobs if the operation ends. A representative of Gilchrist County said the plant accounts for 7 percent of the ad valorem and property tax base.

Nestlé has argued a tax like Taddeo’s would end or limit the company’s work in Florida. When the same bill surfaced last year in the Legislature, a lobbyist for the company said the cost would make bottlers look elsewhere. In addition to High Springs, there is a major plant in Zephyrhills.

Both bills previously failed to get support. Taddeo said bottlers like Nestlé wield influence in Tallahassee.

“They got scared with my bill and totally lobbied up,” she said. “I’m realistic as to what the prospects are, but I do think it is outrageous.”