LIVE OAK — In the face of stark opposition from environmentalists, a state water board on Tuesday unanimously approved “with protest” Nestlé’s bid to pump one million gallons daily for its bottled water business from one of the treasured natural springs along the Santa Fe River in north-central Florida.
Critics promised immediately to appeal the decision on Ginnie Springs by the seven-member governing board of the Suwannee River Water Management District. The approval was expected but still a blow to activists, who said further pumping of the crystal blue waters would put at risk the health of an already taxed river and a network of springs that make up its surrounding ecosystem.
At nearly 60 feet deep, set among a 200-acre forest, Ginnie Springs is one of Florida’s most popular freshwater diving locations and enormously popular among swimmers, paddlers and naturalists.
The decision, after a four-hour board meeting and about 19,000 written public comments to the district, culminated a fight that extended almost two years and drew international attention.
But environmental activists say they will continue to work to stop the permit. Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson of the group Our Santa Fe River said advocates’ next step will be to sue the district.
“The communities do not want this,” she said.
The district previously indicated it would not approve the “consumptive use” permit, but a state administrative judge, G.W. Chisenhall, last year backed a legal appeal. He ruled that the bottled water would be of “beneficial use,” one of the legal standards in such cases, and ordered the board to reconsider.
Tom Reeves, the board’s lawyer, said that ruling effectively tied the board’s hands, meaning the conditions that they could use to deny were out of their jurisdiction.
That led the board Tuesday to approve the permit benefiting Nestlé but “with protest” — a move that technically preserves legal options to continue appealing the decision. But Reeves told the board there was no requirement to take further steps, and some board members said after the vote they were ready to stop fighting.
Still, Doug Manson, the attorney for the local company, Seven Springs Water Co., which sought the pumping permit, objected to the provisional nature of the approval. “There should be a finality to this,” he said.
The board’s decision renews an expired water use permit for Seven Springs to provide water for bottling operations to Nestlé, which produces the Zephyrhills and Pure Life brands. The company had previously been withdrawing water from the springs in lower amounts. Nestlé, a Swiss multinational food and beverage company, said the springs could accommodate its pumping and pledged to work with local officials to ensure the spring remains sustainable.
Ahead of the decision, Nestlé had been airing political advertisements on network television stations across the region noting that it employs hundreds of people as part of its bottling business.
The Ginnie Springs bottling plant has operated since 1998, but Nestlé bought it in 2019 and aims to dramatically expand pumping there in a business that has been incredibly lucrative for the company and others in the bottled water industry. Last week, Nestlé coincidentally announced it would be selling its North American spring water brands, which include regional brands in other states and Canada, for $4.3 billion.
The debate laid bare competing public interests in Florida: Successive Republican governors and the GOP-controlled Legislature have aggressively courted economic development in the face of criticism they have been insensitive to environmental threats from corporate activities. Many residents consistently express they care deeply about the state’s natural habitats, including its beaches, natural springs and the Everglades wetlands that extend across South Florida.
All the board’s members were appointed by Florida’s most recent Republican governors, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. Scott’s environmental record has been criticized as dismal. DeSantis has acknowledged climate change threats and pushed some Everglades restoration projects but he also signed into law a measure last year that prohibits local governments from granting the environment legal rights. That law, intended to tackle water pollution, foreclosed as a legal strategy the so-called Rights of Nature movement to improve environmental protections for rivers, springs, mountains, forests and glaciers.
A wide range of critics on Tuesday urged the board to deny the permit, including local and state environmentalists, generations of Floridians, a Weeki Wachee springs mermaid, University of Florida students and professors, and out-of-state callers.
Ginnie Springs is just one of 11 springs in the area, with a combined discharge of 260 million gallons per day, according to figures from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. But Michael Roth, Our Santa Fe River president, said the system is already over-tapped. He said consumption permits would have to be reduced by 30% for the springs to be healthy again.
“It is self-renewing, but there’s a limit,” he said. “And we are way beyond that limit.”
John S. Quarterman of the Waterkeeper Alliance, told the board that if it had blocked the request for Nestlé, the board would almost certainly be sued by corporate interests and DeSantis would fire members from their political appointments. But he urged them to block the permit anyway.
“Do you really need this job?” he asked. He urged them: “At some point it’s best just to stand on principle.”
Bottled water is optional in most of the U.S., so that is where environmental activists are drawing the line, said Ryan Smart, executive director of statewide group Florida Springs Council.
“If they’re going to grant this permit, then what permit could ever be denied?” he asked.
There was some support for the deal as well. Employment was important to three workers of a Gilchrist County Nestlé bottling factory who backed the permit.
“For generations, our company has contributed to the state of the strong corporate citizen, providing good paying jobs with benefits in a socially responsible, clean manufacturing industry that supports our families and local community,” said factory manager Lane Tuten, who brought a poster with an image of the factory and employees’ signatures.
The board’s chairwoman, Virginia H. Johns, urged people attending the meeting to stay polite, alluding to the tense atmosphere over the decision. “The meeting is not a place for political endorsement,” she said.
Despite the tensions, the meeting remained civil. The pandemic also limited attendance. None of the board members wore masks, but each sat at separate desks at a distance from each other at the head of the hearing room. About a dozen others spread throughout the room wore masks.
People who wanted to deliver public comments before the vote were able to dial in on a conference line, leading to awkward technical glitches and delays waiting for speakers to unmute their phones or pull over while driving before they spoke. Over hours, she called dozens of names of people who had asked to speak but weren’t on the line.
“I think everybody is out enjoying the sunshine today,” Johns said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.