HIGH SPRINGS – The continuing battle over Nestlé pulling 1.152 million gallons a day of spring water from the Seven Springs Bottling plant took another turn on Monday, March 9. Nestle has been fighting for the renewal of a permit owned by Seven Springs that would allow Nestle to draw the 1.5 million gallons from Ginnie Springs. Although Seven Springs initially received the permit 25 years ago for that amount, the plant has never drawn more than 0.26 million gallons per day. Nestle is requesting a permit to be able to draw the full amount to sell as their Zephyrhills brand.
Nestlé purchased the Seven Springs bottling plant last year in anticipation of receiving the permit after Seven Springs renewed the permit. Despite not yet having the approval, Nestle has already invested over $1 million to upgrade the plant to handle the increased capacity.
Nestlé has argued they are good stewards of the environment and would not harm the health of the river since that would be detrimental to their business. They also argue that they bring jobs and tax revenue to Florida's economy and they will help protect the river from increased pollution from agricultural and increased population use since that would also be damaging to the bottling plant.
Over a 20-year period, the aquifer has dropped approximately three feet. Consequently, the Santa Fe River flows many cubic feet per second less than when Seven Springs initially received their permit. In the water management district in which Ginnie is located, the springs flow has declined an average of 48 percent from 1930–2010.
Opponents of the Nestlé plant argue that allowing up to 1.152 million gallons a day to be pumped would harm the Santa Fe River system, reduce water for public use and is not in the public interest as required by state law for approval of permits. They also cite the increased truck traffic and the fact that Nestle would pay only $115 for the five-year permit and an undisclosed amount to Seven Springs and the Wray family that owns Ginnie Springs. Nestlé currently sells $7.7 billion worth of bottled water worldwide a year. Opponents argue that since the water is free for use by all Florida residents Nestle is making a profit selling a free resource back to Florida residents. The High Springs City Commission sent a letter to the Suwanee River Water Management District (SRWMD) suggesting that the permit be restricted to the previous amount drawn rather than the 1.52 million gallons requested by Nestlé.
Regarding the permit, SRWMD requested several reports from Seven Springs to show that the higher withdrawal amount would not cause damage and was in the best interest of the public. SRWMD staff recommended denying the permit since the requested information was not provided, and they considered the application incomplete. The denial was to be reviewed by the SRWMD Board of Governors on Tuesday March 10.
On Monday March 9, Seven Springs and Nestlé filed a petition for an administrative hearing and forwarded the petition to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) for consideration by an Administrative Law Judge as required by law. This action resulted in removing the SRWMD Board of Governors from acting on the denial recommendation since it does not have jurisdiction to act on the petition until the administrative process is completed.
Both sides will present their case at the judicial hearing. However, the judge's ruling will not deal with the general issues or concerns with the permit, but only whether Seven Springs met the required requests for information and whether SRWMD fairly considered the application. No new evidence regarding the effects of the permit will be considered, which means the judge’s decision will not be based on any issue but the legality of the SRWMD's information request. No date has been set for the judicial hearing. While the hearing could be expedited at the request of either party, it typically takes 60-90 days to get on the calendar.
Upon issuance of the recommended order, the SRWMD Executive Director will render a decision about the permit.
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