Ginnie Springs and Seven Springs Water Company: Profit ahead of the public good?

Ginnie Springs, 2017. Credit: John Moran.

Bob Knight was paddling the Santa Fe River last month when he saw the crowd.

In spite of warnings from medical experts, dozens of people had crowded into Ginnie Springs to splash around and laugh and have a good time. Nobody wore a mask – it would have gotten soggy.

Florida has more first-magnitude springs than any place on Earth – first magnitude referring to the amount of water gushing up from underground. Many of the biggest ones, like Wakulla and Silver Springs, are state parks. Ginnie Springs, on the south side of the Santa Fe, is privately owned.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces a statewide stay-at-home order during a news conference in his Capitol office on April 1, 2020. Screenshot image.

The state parks all shut down March 23, but Ginnie Springs’ owners kept its gates open, allowing the party to go on. They waited until Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order in early April before they closed the attraction.

“It’s always the party spring, where people have a lot of beer,” said Knight, who heads up the Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville.

To Knight, packing the spring with people in March is emblematic of a larger problem at Ginnie Springs. The owners, he contends, put profit ahead of the public good.

For the past 26 years, the owners of Ginnie Springs, a corporation called Seven Springs Water Co., has had a permit from the Suwannee River Water Management District to withdraw more than 1.15 million gallons of water to sell to water bottling companies.

But as it sold water to AquaPenn, then Coca-Cola, then Ice River, the amount Seven Springs pulled out of the ground was far less than what was permitted. The most it ever used was 387,400 gallons a day, and that was back in 2006.

Ginnie Springs. Credit: H. Means, State of Florida

Now Seven Springs is seeking to renew that water permit so it can sell the water to Nestlé. And now the company is saying it’s going to use all 1.15 million gallons a day.

The Suwannee River staff reviewed the application, then recommended last month that the water district’s governing board say no to allowing what was, in practice if not on paper, a significant increase. The staff said the company had not provided them with enough information to show that the increased pumping was in the public interest and that their water plant could handle the boost.

Rather than wait for the governing board to vote, Seven Springs filed a petition to the state Division of Administrative Hearings to overturn the staff recommendation.

That legal move is not unusual, according to Florida water law expert Edward de la Parte. The law is set up so that if anyone objects to the staff’s recommendation, the objection can be dealt with prior to a vote.

What is unusual, he said, is for the staff of a water district to recommend denying a renewal for an existing water permit. In his 40 years of practicing water law in Florida, he could think of no more than five times that that had occurred.

“It typically doesn’t happen,” he said. One prominent example: During the Tampa Bay water wars, the Southwest Florida Water Management District became so concerned about the damage that overpumping was doing to lakes and wetlands that its staff recommended denying permits for several municipal wellfields. Everyone sued, of course.

Even though the water district could show major environmental damage, the administrative judge ruled against the denial, de la Parte said. Although the burden of proof is on the applicant to show the staff is wrong, he said, a judge is generally going to ask: If this is wrong now, why did you go along with it for more than two decades?

Both Knight and other water-law attorneys agreed with de la Parte, and more than one suggested this legal maneuver would allow the water district board to duck taking a position on a controversial permit by letting a judge make the decision. Knight called it “an end run.”

“The denial is rare and this one is weak to begin with,” said John Thomas, who frequently represents environmental groups in water cases.

The rule that requires water withdrawals to be “in the public interest” should be sufficient grounds for denial, he said, but Florida’s five water districts “have never given it significant weight.” It’s difficult to say for sure that this is a setup, he said, but added, “I doubt they (the district) expect to win on the merits.”

Seven Springs and its attorney, Douglas Manson of Tampa, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment on their legal challenge, which is set for a hearing in July. But a spokeswoman for the water district, Katelyn Potter, called such allegations “unfounded.”

“The staff recommended denial based on an incomplete application, and we have the proof to show,” she said.

Records she provided underline de la Parte’s point, however: Since it opened its doors in 1973, the Suwannee River water board has voted to deny water use permit applications only eight times, and only one of those was, like the Seven Springs case, a request for a renewal.

Lisa Garcia, a spokeswoman for Nestlé Waters, was quick to point out that the legal wrangle is Seven Springs’ fight and not theirs. But she added, “As part of the permitting process, a series of tests, modeling and analyses were conducted, and experts in the fields of hydrogeology and wetland biology found that the renewal of the existing permitted water withdrawals will not have an adverse impact upon Ginnie Springs or the surrounding wetlands.”

The case has outraged a lot of people who didn’t object to the permit back in 1994. Floridians’ perception of their springs has changed in the last two decades, with good reason.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Credit: Abigail B Wright of Miranda Productions, Inc.; Wikimedia Commons.

The water in many springs no longer boils up like a fountain, the way it has for centuries. The flow has slowed, or even stopped or reversed, because of over-pumping of the aquifer, usually to help homeowners and businesses maintain green lawns. Meanwhile the water that does flow out into the spring becomes polluted, fueling algae blooms that cloud what Marjory Stoneman Douglas once called “bowls of liquid light.”

What a lot of people find particularly outrageous is that the state doesn’t charge a per-gallon price for the private use of the publicly owned water. It’s free.

Protesters have marched around waving anti-Nestlé signs (although Seven Springs is the one seeking the permit). Meanwhile U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has proposed a tax on water bottlers.

In the grand scheme of things, Knight said, the amount of water Seven Springs wants isn’t enough by itself to reverse all the springs along the Santa Fe.

But after you add in all the residential and commercial water use and the farmers drenching their fields with wasteful center-pivot sprinklers, he said, the spring water they’re going to sell to Nestlé “may be the feather that breaks the camel’s back.”