– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum
The River of Discords
As with most things in Florida, the problems facing the Santa Fe River and the state’s springs defy easy narratives.
MERRILLEE MALWITZ-JIPSON paddles her gray-speckled kayak along the Santa Fe River near Gainesville, Florida on a November day. The sun is warm, the wind brisk — a chilly day by Florida standards, in the low 70s. She wears a flannel and gloves, with a purple and pink knitted scarf around her neck. Puffy cumulous [sic] clouds hang in the Florida sky.
THE LARGEST COLLECTION of freshwater springs in the world stretches across north-central Florida, far beyond the white sand beaches, gated communities, amusement parks, luxury resorts, and other curated realities that signify Florida in the public imagination. Underneath these disparate worlds flows the Floridan Aquifer, an underground river system providing 90 percent of the state’s drinking water. Rainwater filters through the state’s foundational limestone in massive quantities and fills the aquifer, which acts like a fossilized sponge, storing water until pressure releases it to the benefit of humans and wildlife.
The water keeps decreasing and the land, industry, and people, increasing.
That romance wouldn’t endure. After Florida officially joined the Union in 1845, politicians became desperate to grow the state’s economy, among the nation’s poorest. They took aim at the state’s millions of acres of freshwater marshlands and undeveloped swamplands. In 1904, Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward promised to build an “Empire of the Everglades,” squeezing every last drop of water from the “pestilence-ridden swamp.” Developers drained wetlands and tapped into the groundwater, creating land for housing and agriculture. As the population expanded — fifteen-fold between 1900 and 2000 — so did the state’s industry and development.
Today Florida, one of the wettest states in the country, is drying up. The water keeps decreasing and the land, industry, and people, increasing. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection now warns that “existing sources of water will not adequately meet the reasonable-beneficial needs for the next 20 years” without new planning efforts. Though the state spends billions of taxpayer funds to save these waters, regulators give away that same water at hot discounts to bottlers, power plants, industrial cattle ranches, manicured golf courses and estates, citrus and sugarcane farms. This subsidy could cost the Floridan Aquifer, which has also been contaminated by chemical runoff, algae blooms, and saltwater as sea levels rise.
THE SANTA FE RIVER makes explicit that line between what you can see and what you must believe. It flows five kilometers underground before appearing with topaz-blue springs hidden along its edges. The river’s waters are glassy but opaque, stained a tea color through tannins released by cypress roots. Those trees form a wall along the shoreline, obscuring what or who might lurk beyond or below the river. Alligators, black bears, Florida panthers, and other predators know the line well and use it to their advantage. Here lies the heart of Merrillee’s work: to reveal the river’s human predators who’d rather operate in the shadows as well.
An artist by training and spirit, Merrillee (friend and foe alike know her by her first name) always wanted to launch her own art movement. When she lived in Miami Beach, she produced the work you’d might expect from a Miami Beach artist. Colorful, garish, fun. Pop. She made hundreds, if not thousands, of paintings in that style. Until one day she realized: This is not the movement I want.
She started a family and ended up in a house along the Santa Fe. She breathed. She began visiting the river, speaking to it. With her artist’s eye, she noticed the beauty in the place, and she made a promise — to herself, to the river — to protect it. “Okay, maybe this is the movement,” she thought. Merrillee now sits on the board of directors for Our Santa Fe River (OSFR), a small environmental advocacy group that has spent the past 15 years trying to save the Santa Fe River from a system destined to tap it dry. They petition officials at public hearings, alert community members of the backdoor bureaucracy, and lead protest paddles in kayaks down the Santa Fe.
In a conference room at Rum 138, a water adventure outfitter and concert venue she co-owns with her husband Doug, Merrillee lays out documents related to the ongoing bottling permit renewal involving Nestlé. Ginnie Springs is privately owned by the Wray family, which has held the bottling permit for more than 25 years, selling spring water to multiple bottlers like Coca-Cola and Ice River Springs. Throughout that period the average extraction never rose above 270,000 gallons per day, though the Wrays’ permit allowed up to 1.152 million gallons per day. When Nestlé arrived in 2019, striking a deal with the Wrays, the company caused an uproar by announcing its intention to pump the full allotted amount. The permit, however, was set to expire that same year and a renewal was required.
Bottlers like Nestlé pose an unnecessary threat to the Santa Fe, one that stresses the river system without giving anything in return to the people who live near it. Photo by John Moran.
In Florida, environmental protection resembles pricey landscape restoration, often delayed until the damage is done.
This may be just how it works with the environment in Florida. In the 1960s, taxpayers spent $35 million to channelize the Kissimmee River, causing devastating ecological ruin, and have since spent more than $500 million fixing the mess. The pattern continues with the springs, as Florida has allocated $50 million in annual funding over the past four years for restoration, with $2.3 million dedicated for the Santa Fe River and Ginnie Springs. Meanwhile, no tax exists for bottling or pumping, only a one-time $115 application fee for a permit that can last up to 20 years. Money comes in, the water goes out. Throughout the state, regulators have issued 26 permits to bottlers that allow just under 4 billion gallons to be withdrawn each year.
Following this merry-go-round spinning out of control can drive many environmentalists dizzy, mad, or both. “It’s very defeating,” Terry Bryant, legislative chairman of the Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association, told me regarding his battles to protect Florida’s waters. “I really need to stop beating my head against the wall, people tell me. But if we didn’t do these things, think about how bad it will be.” Fellow activist Annette Long, former president of the defunct Save Our Suwannee, adds, “I have to keep my mouth shut to not get sued and not be threatened.”
Merrillee remains grounded. “I don’t get burned out,” she says. She can’t stop, because, as her catchphrase notes, “Nature doesn’t have a voice.”
For OSFR, she is the group’s anchor and sentinel, attending up to 30 public meetings per month, traveling to tiny towns, big cities, and wherever water is imperiled. “She has to have 36 hours in her day,” says OSFR President Mike Roth, “because I don’t know how she gets it all going. She’s involved in fights I don’t even know about.”
ALL ACROSS NORTH AMERICA, water advocates are rallying against Nestlé, a corporation that made $92.5 billion in 2019 worldwide sales. As it happens, multiple water permits held by Nestlé or its partners — including ones in White Pine Springs near Flint, Michigan, where residents still lack access to clean drinking water, and the Arrowhead Complex in California’s San Bernardino Forest, among the most wildfire prone forests in the country — are up for renewal in predominantly rural communities. Grassroots campaigns, much like Merrillee’s, oppose them all.
Nestlé is an easy company to hate. Scandals have ripped the company, ranging from child labor use, plastic pollution, and convincing undeveloped African nations its infant formula was superior to mothers’ breast milk. When the company sets its sights on a community, many residents must play an exhausting game of whack-a-mole to convince it to leave.
“You take the bottled water away and then we have to focus on what’s really the problem.”
“Shutting down the entire water bottling industry will not have any effect whatsoever,” says Todd Kincaid, a groundwater scientist and executive director of the diver-community focused conservation group Project Baseline. Florida policy places no cap on possible groundwater extraction. Kincaid warns if you pull the plug on Nestlé, the state will simply redirect its allocation elsewhere. The elephant in the room isn’t Nestlé, he argues, but development and industrial agriculture, the latter of which pumps more than two billion gallons per day — half groundwater, half surface water — to irrigate crops.
Bottled water permits total only about 11 million gallons of the 3.6 billion gallons of groundwater extracted per day, according to 2015 US Geological Survey data.
Florida soil, which is predominantly made of sand, doesn’t provide ideal farming conditions, and farmers liberally spray nitrogen-rich fertilizers to yield profitable crops. Runoff from farms ignites algal blooms. These green flotillas of slimy armies have invaded Florida’s waterways, depleting the water’s oxygen and choked subaquatic wildlife and vegetation. The springs have it the worst as nitrates seep past the soil and limestone, through the aquifer, and back up the springs, ravaging their waters above and below. The Florida springs may be designed to replenish themselves, but they’ve become vehicles for their own destruction.
“People will say, Oh, well, you got to eat so we have to protect our growers,” Kincaid says. “Well, then write your springs off. Because it doesn’t matter. If you take out Nestlé, if you take out water bottling, and you don’t do anything about ag, it’s all for nothing. They’re all going to be gone.”
Though Kincaid is unpopular in some advocacy circles for his views on bottling, he is not alone. “Bottled water is not the bad guy in Florida,” says Annette Long. “I would much rather have 10 bottle water plants than the one giant farm field next to my house.”
We want simple stories. We want obvious heroes and villains. But the plight of the springs, as with so much else in Florida, defy such easy narratives.
THIS PAST HALLOWEEN Merrillee hosted a socially distanced fundraiser at Rum 138, down the road from the Santa Fe River. Audience members wore costumes and watched a small concert put on by Gainesville musicians. Off to the side, rows and rows of empty plastic water bottles hung from an overhead booth, reminding the community of the ongoing fight.
While Merrillee ultimately agrees with Kincaid about the elephants of agriculture and industry in Florida’s water wars, she believes engaging those enemies is a losing proposition unless folks first stop seeing water as a commodity. “You take the bottled water away and then we have to focus on what’s really the problem,” Merrillee later tells me.
A local artist, who goes by Lunchbox, took the stage and wailed a tune he’d written for the event: Oh I know an enemy / Yes I know a foe / Who even now schemes / To steal the springs’ flow.
Merrillee always wanted to give the river a voice, to show the public their efforts could change the river’s fate. Hers may remain among the loudest, but it is far from the only one. The river and springs don’t just have a voice, but a chorus of voices. They may not sing in harmony, but still they sing.
Back on stage, Lunchbox launches into his song’s final verse: They can’t sell what they don’t own! / To them it’s just a tiny stream / But we’re the ones who keep it clean / Let us stop Nestlé’s evil dream. The crowd offers a few encouraging hollers. Then comes the final hook: Every concert every band / every woman every man / We say let it flow / We say let it flow.