Florida, perpetually in a water crisis, once again is poised to give away hundreds of millions of gallons that will end up in plastic bottles on the shelves of supermarkets.
A company called Seven Springs Water wants to renew a lucrative permit that allows the siphoning of Ginnie Springs, a scenic recreational site along the Santa Fe River near Gainesville.
For a farcical one-time fee of $115, Seven Springs would be allowed to withdraw almost 1.2 million gallons a day from a river system where the flows already have dropped 30 percent to 40 percent, according to the Florida Springs Institute.
The agreement would be bad for the Santa Fe and also the fragile Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to millions of people. But for Seven Springs the deal is sweet: free water, which it then sells to Nestlé, the world’s largest bottler.
Many of the Nestlé labels are familiar: Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Poland Springs and Zephyrhills, to name a few. The company is expanding its facility near Ginnie Springs and needs more liquid product.
For decades, Florida has handed out metaphorical free straws to companies that profitably suck the water from natural springs. Approval of “consumptive use” permits rests with regional water management districts, the boards of which are appointed by the governor.
Sometimes the appointees are qualified and knowledgeable; sometimes they act like tools of special interests. Despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ very public pledge to rescue the state’s natural waters, most of the district boards are crippled by so many vacancies that they can barely assemble a quorum. Like the Everglades and algae-plagued coastal waters, Florida’s famous springs are now in trouble. Too much groundwater extraction combined with diminished annual rainfall have sharply lowered the levels, and introduced harmful nutrients.
Once-pristine Ginnie Springs now carries nitrates from wastewater and farm runoff — ingredients you won’t see listed on Nestlé’s bottles.
The company won’t reveal how much — or little — it pays Seven Springs for the water, but says it’s a caring corporate neighbor that supports conservation causes.
“It would make no sense to invest millions of dollars into our local operations just to deplete the natural resources on which our business relies,” wrote a Nestlé Waters spokesman.
Florida isn’t the only state foolish to give away its most critical resource. Citizen groups in Michigan also have been battling Nestlé over its pumping of public springs and aquifers.
The Florida Springs Council, a consortium of 48 organizations focused on water issues in northern and central Florida is among the opponents of the Ginnie Springs expansion. It notes that the Santa Fe isn’t the same river it was 20 years ago, when the original usage permit was issued.
Trouble was evident as recently as 2013, when the Suwannee River Water Management District reported that the Lower Santa Fe had a “deficit of 11 million gallons per day.” Today, the river is considered to be at minimum flow.
The sane response would be to reduce — not increase — the volumes being pumped out. A jump to 1.2 million gallons per day would more than quadruple the current impact on Ginnie Springs.
Rejecting or at least modifying the application seems like a wise and obvious choice for the Suwannee district board. Unfortunately, that vacancy-plagued panel is one of several that the governor seems to have forgotten.
Nestlé has big money and political clout, so the state is unlikely to completely shut off the Ginnie Springs spigot. Still, it wouldn’t be revolutionary to require water-bottling operations to start paying for what they take, as California does.
The Florida Springs Council estimates that even a puny, one-cent-per-gallon fee on the Seven Springs/Nestlé permit would generate at least $400,000 a year that could fund restoration projects in the Santa Fe River Basin, which is fed by dozens of natural springs.
Statewide, the group says, a fee of only 50-cents-per-thousand gallons on companies such as Nestlé
would raise “hundreds of millions of dollars to protect and sustain Florida’s waters.”
One thing is certain: If Nestlé doesn’t have to pay to preserve the springs it bleeds, taxpayers will billed for the damage — as they are now for Everglades restoration and man-made algae outbreaks.
By speaking out against the Ginnie Springs permit, DeSantis would prove he’s aware that the state’s water crisis isn’t confined to South Florida.
Meanwhile, the next time you think of buying a bottle of Zephyrhills or Poland Springs, check out the label.
Here are a few words you won’t see:
“Thank you, Florida, for all this tasty, refreshing, dirt-cheap water.”