This past Friday, Our Santa Fe River joined Florida Defenders of the Environment, Joe Little, a Gainesville environmental attorney, and Bruce Kaster, former chairman of the Ocklawaha Basin board of the St. Johns River Water Management District, in serving notice to the Suwannee River Water Management District of intention to file a civil complaint for injunctive relief pursuant to the Florida Environmental Protection Act. The complaint alleges that the District has “violated the public interest of the people of the State of Florida…by issuing consumptive use permits that permit private persons to sell water owned by the people of Florida and in which the private sellers have no private property interest for the personal gain of the private sellers thereby transferring the monetary value of waters owned by the people of Florida to private persons”. The relief sought is to require that the District not approve or extend any permit “for the purpose of selling to bottling companies that does not include a provision capturing the monetary value of the water itself for the people of the State of Florida.”
We are cognizant that this suit does not ask that the permits be denied, or the pumping stopped, just that the people of the State of Florida receive the monetary value of their water that is transferred. While this is not directly in line with what we have been trying to accomplish, it would indeed delay and derail the current permit and would introduce the most compelling use of “public interest” to date.
Public interest was one of the issues that Our Santa Fe River tried to raise as a party to, and later intervenor in, the Administrative Hearing regarding the permit approval late last year. In that matter, we were disenfranchised as our complaint was merged into an existing matter where public interest had already been eliminated from discussion as a result of an in limine order.
The other issue, erroneous conclusions by the District as to the scientific support for the permit, is one that we believe to be an ongoing issue permeating the water consumption analyses done by the District and will have to wait for another day. In the mid-term future, this issue will take center stage as Department of Environmental Protection appears to be poised to reduce the Minimum Flows and Levels upon which permitting is based.
This suit spotlights what we have perceived as a “water brokerage” permit which allows a company with no real property interest in the wells or bottling plant to extract the public water at no cost and sell it to a third party for distribution outside the area. Court recognition of this as something contrary to the public interest, a term used 46 times in the Water Resources chapter of the Florida Statutes, is long overdue.