merrillee nestle rally In: Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson: Bottling water conflicts with spring restoration | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, Photo by Jim Tatum.

Within the past six years, $33 million of taxpayer money has been approved for springs restoration projects in the Santa Fe River basin to save our Florida freshwater springs. The need for funding, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District, is to “replace and improve aging infrastructure, improve water quality and protect natural resources which ultimately affect our springs.”

More significantly, according to the district, “rural counties struggle to identify the financial resources needed to retrofit and update aging infrastructure.”

Our Florida Legislature has taken important steps to ensure that communities who recognize the last remaining drops of culturally significant freshwater systems are given every opportunity including financial relief to keep these springs alive and healthy. Equally significant is that the state has recognized that land use impacts are causing the need for the funding.

At the recent April meeting of the Suwannee River district board, held by teleconference due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, several carefully vetted spring restoration projects were introduced that will be placed before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for approval to protect our springs.

Much-needed water quality projects included wastewater treatment in Fort White, High Springs and Trenton to improve water quality in the Santa Fe and Suwannee river basins. Land purchases for two conservation projects straddling the Santa Fe, which will ultimately protect high recharge of the Floridan Aquifer in the Devil’s Ear Spring complex, included buying land around Sawdust Springs in Columbia County and nearly 2,800 acres in Gilchrist County.

Interestingly, the Devil’s Ear Spring complex (which includes Ginnie Springs) is the exact location Seven Springs Water Company has been drawing water from for over 20 years and wants to renew a permit to continue to draw up to 1,152,000 gallons of water daily for resale to Nestle Waters North America, or whoever.

The total value of these five critical water quality and quantity projects is nearly $28 million with the majority coming from state funding with a small portion from a conservation group. This amounts to water quality and quantity efforts being paid for by your taxpayer dollars to ensure a first magnitude spring on the Santa Fe River has reduced nutrient loads and increased flows.

At the same time, your state water management district staff, to their credit, is recommending to deny a water use permit for this water bottling operation. In response, the entities Nestle and Seven Springs Water Company have initiated litigation in hopes to continue to extract freshwater for their private profits and sales.

Seven Springs has not proven the need for this water sufficiently for the Suwannee River Water Management District to issue the permit. Public interest prevails through the use of taxpayer dollars used to restore and maintain our springs and must not be countered by a permit that puts the Santa Fe River spring water into wasteful plastic bottles for corporate sales.

In light of the current health pandemic, nature needs to be prioritized above human encroachment; important springs projects must be funded to save the last remaining freshwater sources to maintain quality, quantity and ecosystems. Bottling water directly from our protected springs is a frivolous pursuit compared to ensuring health and longevity for our Florida springs.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson is a board member of Our Santa Fe River Inc.