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The Fight for Florida’s Springs

On Feb. 23rd 2021, the fight for Florida’s springs took a turn. The Suwannee River Water Management District board voted in favor of renewing a permit allowing Seven Springs Water Co. to continue pumping water from Florida springs. Seven Springs, which owns Ginnie Springs and the surrounding land, pumps this water to the High Springs bottled water facility bought by Nestle in 2019.

This vote comes after decades of hotly debated corporate involvement in Florida’s natural springs. Unfortunately, it is just the most recent development in a tortured saga. Since 1998, Seven Springs has sold its water use permit to various companies. Before Nestle, Dannon, Coca Cola and Ice River all owned the High Springs water bottling facility respectively1.

Photo credit: Florida Memory State Library and Archives of Florida
The risk groundwater pumping poses to springs is very real, and its effects have already been felt. In 1950, Kissengen Spring in Polk County became the first to succumb to excessive pumping 2. On February 19th, the spring ran dry after years of use by phosphate mining companies 3. Once a popular swimming hole, the memory of Kissengen now looms as a warning to current and future generations.

Consequences of Over Pumping

The freshwater located on Seven Springs’ property is part of the larger Floridan Aquifer which houses springs across the state. The aquifer stretches into Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Similar to Florida’s unique wetland Everglades, Florida’s springs system is unlike any other. Comprising over 1,000 springs, it is the largest concentration of freshwater in the world4. As a result, the effects of over pumping are felt far and wide.

Scientists and local officials are only just beginning to understand the ways in which over pumping affects the totality of Florida’s ecosystems. When the aquifers that feed the springs and rivers are excessively tapped, artesian pressures drop and surface water flow is diminished. With lower water levels comes increased concentration of nutrient pollution—fueling the algae blooms that are suffocating plant and animal life in the springs 5.

Photo credit: John Moran
Likewise sea level rise also poses a threat6. Rising sea levels due to climate change in combination with over pumping put the springs at risk for saltwater intrusion7.  As a result, the freshwater could turn brackish. This change would cause turmoil for many of the springs’ inhabitants.

Over 90 percent of the state relies on water from the underlying aquifers to meet their supply needs8. Saltwater intrusion would make the water unusable and send the state into a freshwater shortage.

Photo credit: Florida Museum

Who is Protecting Florida Springs?

District boards like the Suwannee River Management board are meant to limit degradation of Florida waterways through implementing minimum flows (MFLs)9. However, such MFLs have been reduced due to pumping by corporations. Regulations like these are put in place to balance water consumption needs with maintaining healthy waterways. However, lowering levels puts the fragile ecological equilibrium of the springs at risk. 

In the past, Coca Cola extracted around 200,000 gallons per day. In comparison, Nestle plans to bottle at five-times that rate10, pumping 1.15 million gallons per day11. 

Silver Springs in Marion County which once produced 500 million gallons per day, now only pumps 200 million12. A similar fate awaits Ginnie Springs if pumping goes unchecked.
Experts at the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute agree that groundwater extractions need to be reduced by 50 percent, back to pre-1990 levels, to help restore the springs to health13. Thus, the renewal of the Seven Springs permit is a move in the wrong direction.

What's Next?

Because of these recent and historical failures to safeguard Florida’s springs, the burden of protection falls on constituents and non profits. So, as Nestle begins operations at Ginnie Springs, local organizations ramp up efforts to put a stop to their pumping14. 

One proposed solution is to charge businesses a fee for pumping water out of the springs. Apart from a one-time permit fee of $115 Nestle and Seven Springs have free access to Florida’s precious fresh water springs15, making a huge profit at the cost of already endangered local ecosystems. A water fee, while not a perfect solution, could act as a deterrent. At the very least, a fee would funnel money back into the state for spring conservation and restoration projects16 . 

How To Get Involved

In a perfect world, Florida’s crystal springs and robust rivers would not have to go to battle with corporate greed. While the fight may seem far removed from daily life and behind courtroom doors, there are ways to get involved locally. 

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