Ginnie Springs, named for a woman who once washed laundry there, has long been one of the most popular freshwater diving locations in the world. Thousands of divers have explored its fossils and limestone formations.
Part of what attracts them is its water, which Jacques Cousteau once proclaimed to be the clearest in the world with "visibility forever." Keeping it that way hasn't been easy.
Unlike most of the popular springs in Florida, the 600 acres around Ginnie Springs aren't part of the state park system. Since 1973 that land about 40 minutes north of Gainesville has been owned by the Wray family from St. Petersburg, who operate it as an ecotourism attraction that employs about 50 people.
"We have a really large following and a lot of repeat business," said Mark Wray, who's now in charge of the attraction his parents started nearly 40 years ago. The customers keep coming because "Ginnie's like a time capsule."
The Wrays would like the government's help in fending off pollution and other threats to their livelihood. But they have learned they cannot count on local or state officials, he said.
"It's pretty scary how things are," Wray said. He labeled state officials as "corrupt" because, in his view, they are beholden to polluters and big water users. Instead of protecting the aquifer, he said, the state's water agencies have "just rubber-stamped these things. ... They're there to issue permits. They're really not there to protect the springs."
When state and local officials have approved or even considered permits that Wray fears will hurt Ginnie Springs, he has gone to court to stop them.
"It is just a constant battle to keep them away," he said.
The Wrays' lawsuits have had mixed success. In the late 1990s, for instance, the Wrays sued Gilchrist County over whether new dairy farms could be allowed near the spring. Their attorney argued that county officials had failed to set adequate standards for the farms.
A judge ruled against a temporary injunction because "I don't see where the public interest is in great jeopardy at this time."
On the other hand, he and his neighbors beat an effort by New York investors to build a new landfill near the spring. "We filed a personal lawsuit against each of the company's directors," he said. "They weren't happy with it and went away."
Earlier this year, Wray challenged a permit that he said would allow a farmer to grow vegetables — and use fertilizer — right up to the edge of Wray's property line. A potential settlement is still being negotiated, he said last week.
Despite his attempts to protect Ginnie Springs' purity, the water quality has shown a spike in nitrate pollution. Still, Wray's staunch defense of Ginnie Springs has paid clear dividends. During the most recent drought, Ginnie Springs did not see a reduction in its flow the way other nearby springs did. He said that's because he fended off the kind of deep irrigation systems that have sucked down the aquifer.
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Wray has recently become more concerned about pumping permits being issued by the water district for users far from his own neighborhood and beyond his ability to challenge them in court.
He's particularly bothered by the permit the St. Johns River Water Management District approved for the Jacksonville Electric Authority this year, allowing the power company to use about 163 million gallons of groundwater every day by 2031 — up from 118 million gallons per day it used in 2010.
Wray fears the continued pumping from Jacksonville and even southern Georgia will deplete the aquifer to the point that it eventually lowers the flow in Ginnie Springs.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought the district would allow something like this," Wray said. Instead, he said, the state should spare the springs and the underlying aquifer "for the next generation. Not to mention we've all got to drink it."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org