Florida activists devise water use protest: applying for 'virtual wells'

Steve Kingery of Citrus County calls the permit ploy “a fancy protest” of the state’s water policies.
Steve Kingery of Citrus County calls the permit ploy “a fancy protest” of the state’s water policies.
Published Sept. 21, 2013

Three Citrus County environmental activists have filed applications with the state for each of them to pump 99,999 gallons of water a day out of the aquifer.

But they really don't want to pump any of it. Their goal is to block anyone else — particularly big farming operations or developers — from taking it. They'd rather let nature keep using it.

"We're drilling virtual wells," explained Tracy Colson, 51, a Crystal River native who runs Nature Coast Kayak Tours and is a devoted manatee advocate. "We'll just leave it where it is."

The idea came from Steve Kingery, 58, a semiretired air conditioning contractor from Crystal River. He calls the permit ploy "a fancy protest" of the way the state's five water management districts hand out big water-use permits. Then he recruited Colson and Matt Clemons, 59, a former state biologist and now owner of Aardvark's Florida Kayak Co. to follow suit.

Clemons says he expects the application to expose inequities in the state's water policies. "If we can't get permits to use the water … and yet you can get permits to use it to sell bottled water, that makes no sense," he said.

They picked the amount of 99,999 gallons because that meant their 10-year permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, more commonly known as Swiftmud, would cost just $50. Greater quantities require far higher fees.

Swiftmud is one of five water districts in the state that regulate water use and wetlands destruction. The permit applications sent in by Colson, Kingery and Clemons reflect a growing distrust of the way the districts and the state Department of Environmental Protection have allowed widespread pumping of millions of gallons a day from the aquifer.

As of 2011, the most recent year with data, Swiftmud had 7,745 water use permits allowing people in 16 counties to pump more than 1 billion gallons of water a day out of the ground. About 37 percent was for agriculture, and about 50 percent was to be used by residents and businesses. The rest goes toward such uses as mining and bottled water.

DEP and the water districts are setting what are known as "minimum flows and levels" for Florida's major waterways. The idea is to figure out how much more those rivers, springs and lakes can be drained for water supply purposes before causing environmental problems.

The Legislature has said that the levels must avoid causing "significant harm" — not all harm, just significant harm.

In an interview two years ago, a Southwest Florida Water Management District official conceded that the law provides no guard against gradual damage from increased pumping: "You're either significantly harmed or you're not."

To Kingery, that makes the minimum flow process "useless."

At a legal hearing in Brooksville last week, St. Petersburg attorney John Thomas, representing the Save the Manatee Club and two other groups, argued that it's worse than that — that the minimum flows and levels being set now by the agency commonly known as Swiftmud are illegal.

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Thomas contended they violate standards that are intended to protect against the degradation of the water supply. The damage caused by the reduction in the aquifer is most evident in the decline of Florida's springs, he said, a point that Clemons and the other activists make as well.

Thomas said he had not heard about the permit applications sent in by Colson, Kingery and Clemons, but he thinks "folks should petition the government for relief in any form allowed by law."

However, Thomas and former Swiftmud executive director Emilio "Sonny" Vergara said the activists' goal of getting a permit for water they're not actually going to use might be too similar to the practice of "water-banking," which is against state law.

"Remember, a water permit is not to have water but to use it," Vergara said. "That's why you have to justify the permit. If you can't justify the use, you don't get the water."

So far, Swiftmud officials have not rejected the applications, just asked for more information.

"Anyone can apply for a water use permit, and it will go through the process," Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times. "Not every application is approved."

Kingery said the activists understand that the odds are not in their favor. "There is a very slight chance we can force them to give us the permits," he said. "But we might get some specific answers out of them."

Craig Pittman can be reached at