Will Nestle’s Plans To Bottle More Water Put A Popular Florida Spring At Risk?
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson painted as a Lincoln Road artist at the South Florida Arts Center in the early 1990s, living the “wild” life as a single creative on South Beach.
But that lifestyle did not last long for her. She eventually settled down and moved to High Springs in North Florida, the heart of springs country, to raise her family and start a business. In the process, she has become one of the most fierce, outspoken advocates for Florida’s unique freshwater springs.
With more than 1,000 artesian springs, located roughly between Orlando and Pensacola, Florida is home to the world’s largest and highest concentration of springs.
This week, Malwitz-Jipson will be leading dozens of people appearing before the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) in Live Oak to oppose a permit application that would allow Nestle Waters North America to pump and bottle about a million gallons a day from Ginnie Springs, a popular diving and swimming spot. The final vote is expected on Wednesday or Thursday.
“I don’t think they are managing the water resources at all,” Malwitz-Jipson said of the water management district. “All of our springs are losing flow. It is abysmal. They’re just maximizing profits for private entities that require large scale consumptive use permits.”
The vote on the Nestle permit has garnered international attention, primarily because it is seen by some independent scientists and activists as a bellwether for the future of the springs. And being Florida, even mermaids are among the activists opposing the permit.
The springs were Florida’s first tourist destinations — Weeki Wachee, White Springs, Wakulla Springs and Silver Springs are among the most famous — and some that have not been destroyed are still popular attractions north of Disney World.
As the state’s population has boomed in recent decades, the ripple effects of sprawling development are taking a toll on the health — and in some cases, existence — of the springs. Some scientists fear the springs may ultimately disappear if Florida does not take action to course-correct.
“We’re facing a bleak future if we continue on this path of not controlling how much groundwater we allow people to pump,” said Robert L. Knight, Ph.D. executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and one of the nation’s leading spring scientists. “The current government leaders in Florida have less concern about environmental issues than previous administrations.”
The struggle of the springs is examined in a new documentary, The Fellowship of the Springs — a two-hour, two-part series scheduled to air in April on WPBT2 and other PBS affiliates around Florida.
Filmed over a two-year period by Miami-based production company Explica Media, the in-depth documentary explores the role and relevance of the springs today, and how growing impacts from some of the state’s biggest industries — agriculture, construction, mining — are affecting them. (The author of this article produced and directed the documentary).
At the heart of the film’s narrative is the underdog fight to save the springs, led by Malwitz-Jipson and a group of activists and grassroots organizations. Their argument is that the springs and the ecosystems created by them are under existential threat from pollution and overpumping of groundwater, according to findings by independent scientists.
Of 33 first magnitude springs in Florida, 21 are located in SRWMD, including Ichetucknee, the Ginnie group and Manatee Springs. First magnitude springs gush a minimum of 65 million gallons of water a day, around 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But some of the bigger ones, such as Rainbow, Wakulla and Silver can pump enough water in a day to fill up the Houston astrodome twice over.
But many of Florida’s springs are experiencing on average more than a 25 percent decline in flow, said Knight.
Additionally, many springs’ natural clear blue color is tinting to green under relentless algae blooms caused by nitrate pollution from the agriculture industry — both the biggest consumer of water and the biggest contributor of nitrate pollution to the springs in the SRWMD, according to research conducted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Springs Institute. Other significant sources of nitrates are septic tanks and urban land uses.
The vote this week on the Nestle permit pits the Wray family, owners of the popular Ginnie Springs Outdoors, against springs and water advocates. Risa Wray is a principal of Seven Springs Water company, which is entering into an agreement with Nestle, a multinational food and beverage conglomerate.
Nestle is expected to pay Seven Springs millions of dollars a year to pump the water, Malwitz-Jipson said. By comparison, Seven Springs will pay a one-time, $115 permit fee to the state of Florida to allow for Nestle’s pumping. After that, the water is free.
The Ginnie Springs bottling plant has operated since 1998 but Nestle bought it in 2019 and hopes to dramatically expand pumping there in a business that has been incredibly lucrative for the company and others in the bottled water industry. This week, Nestle 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.
In an emailed response to written questions, Risa Wray said a non-disclosure agreement prevented her from saying how much Seven Springs will get paid by Nestle for the water. She said the increase in pumping would not harm the springs.
“My family will always take great care to ensure the amount of water we sell is sustainable and will not adversely impact the springs or surrounding wetlands,” Wray wrote. “Recent science shows our water withdrawals have no adverse impact to Ginnie Springs, the river, or surrounding wetlands.”
She also said her company has a track record of environmental compliance.
“We know Ginnie Springs is a healthy spring,” she wrote. “My company and family have always been protective of the land.”
Nestle Waters North America did not respond to requests for comment for the documentary. But NWNA Natural Resource Manager George Ring spoke publicly about the permit at a town hall meeting in Fort White in late 2019. He said a study showed that pumping a million gallons a day from Ginnie Springs would have no adverse impact on its flow or wildlife. Nestle already bottles water at several other springs in Florida as do other companies.
“The amount of flow that we are talking about here,” he said, “comes out to be about a quarter of a percent of the overall flow. Do we have problems with groundwater? Do we have problems with pumping? We may. This isn’t really the issue, is it?”
PAST PROTECTIONS FAILED
There have been past political pushes to protect Florida’s springs. As governor from 1999 to 2007, Jeb Bush launched an initiative that produced studies documenting the declining water flows and increasing pollution as well as recommendations from scientists and environmentalists to combat the issues.
“Think of all the water that is mined here in Florida and shipped all around the United States,” the former governor said last year in an interview for the documentary. “It’s probably not the greatest use of the resource.”
But bottled water companies continued to pump from springs while he was in office and lawmakers failed to support most proposals from Bush’s springs initiative. Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who followed Bush, once floated a 6-cents-a-gallon state tax on water used by commercial bottlers — money that could help fund springs restoration and protections. It sunk.
In 2010, Florida elected governor Rick Scott. He defunded the springs program and slashed budgets for water management districts statewide.
During his term, the Suwannee River Water Management District budget plunged from about $35 million in 2008 to about $12 million in 2013, records show. And dozens of staff and scientists were laid off from there and other water management districts in north Florida, said Jim Gross, a professional geologist who was fired from the St. Johns River Water Management District after speaking out about the dangers of over-pumping of ground water.
This 60 percent-plus budget decline was reflected in canceled, frozen or postponed projects intended to help the springs and other natural places, as well as the loss of institutional knowledge, Gross said.
He said the water management districts have become politicized and are engaging in faulty, bad faith science to interpret data to justify their continued issuing of consumptive use permits.
“A lot of what the science has to say is in conflict with what we’re hearing coming out of the front office,” Gross said in an interview for the documentary. “Politics has dramatically altered the way we do business in these water management districts.”
Scott, now a U.S. senator representing Florida, declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and did not answer specific questions sent to him through his communications office. Instead, he issued a brief written statement.
“Under Senator Scott’s leadership as Governor, Florida’s annual investments to preserve the environment and protect its iconic beaches, pristine springs and the Florida Everglades increased by $1 billion,” Scott said through a spokesperson. “In 2016, then-Governor Scott signed legislation to create an annual dedicated source of funding to restore the Everglades and to protect Florida’s springs. He also invested more money into Florida’s springs than any other administration in Florida history.”
Many activists scoff at what they consider spin from Scott, saying his priority was always protecting industry and business.
NEEDED: TOUGHER RULES ON USE
Some advocates say that under Scott, the water permitting system in Florida was redesigned to adopt loose standards for issuing consumptive water use permits and reduce the authority of state regulators. Water management district board members, who make the final decision on permits, are appointed by the governor.
Lee Constantine, a former Republican state senator and the vice chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition, said water management districts need to clamp down on issuing consumptive use permits. He said one good way to do it would be to reconsider charging for consumptive use permits, even just five cents for every thousand gallons.
“It [water] is an asset of the people,” Constantine said in an interview for the documentary. “As we pump out millions and millions of gallons, our rivers aren’t flowing, our springs are depleted and that is harming the entire ecosystem of Florida.”
Records show that in Georgia, which shares some watersheds with the state of Florida, all entities with consumptive use permits are mandated to have meters to monitor water use; and agricultural operations that have consumptive use permits are mandated to adopt best management practices. Georgia has also implemented moratoriums on new consumptive water use permits in certain sensitive watersheds, records show.
In some areas, Florida has pushed best management practices for how farms and groves use fertilizer to help reduce water pollution. But critics say those standards are often set by industries themselves and are difficult to enforce. There is also no statewide requirement to use meters to monitor how much water big users are drawing from springs and aquifers.
Katelyn Potter, a spokeswoman for the SRWMD, said in an interview for the documentary, “anything is on the table,” when it comes to new regulatory processes for minimum flows and levels (MFLs). “But we leave that up the authority of our governing board to make those final decisions.”
Bush, who was the first Florida governor to establish protections and programs to help the springs, said the springs need a plan similar to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
“Just like the Everglades is a very unique ecosystem, so too are the springs that are to the north of them. And I think we have a duty to protect them,” Bush said. “I think the Everglades is a great model, actually, for a sustained effort to protect the springs.”
Just as iconic author Marjory Stoneman Douglas once rallied South Florida to protect the Everglades, Malwitz-Jipson is today a leading voice to protect the springs.
She is known throughout North Florida for showing up at obscure public meetings, and is sometimes the only person present speaking out for Florida’s springs. She said the model where a multinational corporation can pay pocket change so that a few people can get rich off the public’s water is destroying the springs.
“We protect these incredible waterways in the state of Florida where the magic exists out in the woods,” she said. “ A corporation like that is not beneficial and reasonable, and it does not serve the public interest and it has the potential to harm existing users.”
Many springs in Florida have already been destroyed. Places like Kissingen Spring, White Springs, and Worthington Springs used to support robust tourism economies. Now they are gone.
SRWMD Deputy Executive Director Tom Mirti said in an interview for the documentary that the conditions of the springs in his district are “not particularly good.”
“We’ve got challenges with nutrient contamination in the springs, both from nitrogen and phosphorous,” he said. “And then we’ve seen similarly over a long period of time looking at groundwater levels, there’s been a decline in aquifer levels on a regional basis across the district.”
In March of last year, staff at the SRWMD recommended that the board deny the Nestle permit. But on the eve of the vote, Nestle sued to have the case heard before an administrative law judge, which ultimately delayed the vote for a year. Now, the judge has recommended that the district approve the permit. The final decision is up to the board.
Of the seven members who make up the board of the SRWMD, several own or work in businesses that benefit from consumptive water use, like agriculture, development and construction. One member is a pawn broker. None are scientists, or work in the tourism industry. And none represent state or county parks, where most major springs are located.
“The governor appoints the board members of the water management districts who make the overall decisions,” said springs activist Tessa Skiles in an interview for the documentary. “As we stand now, there’s one environmentalist on one water management district board, out of all five. The rest are farmers, developers, people that are benefiting from consuming our water.”
Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter, is the director and producer of the upcoming documentary series The Fellowship of the Springs.
John Moran is a Florida nature photographer and a leading chronicler of Florida’s springs.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.