NESTLE: Understanding the "Public interest"
The Florida Springs Council (FSC) and Our Santa Fe River (OSFR) filed a legal challenge on March 16, 2021, seeking to overturn the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) Governing Board’s approval of a consumptive use permit for Seven Springs Water Co. to provide nearly a million gallons of water per day to Nestle’s bottled water operation. FSC and OSFR have put together a talented team of attorneys and advisors to represent us, and you, in this important legal challenge.
We'd like to help you all understand the law behind this challenge. One reason we argue in this challenge that the District should have to denied the permit is that the SRWMD Governing Board failed to consider whether issuing the consumptive use permit was “consistent with the public interest” as required by SRWMD rules and Florida Statute.
In January 2020 an Administrative Law Judge in Tallahassee ruled in favor of Seven Springs/Nestle, recommending that the SRWMD approve a consumptive use permit to withdraw just under one million gallons of water per day from the springs of the Santa Fe River. At the next Governing Board meeting, in February, the permit was approved. Many of you were rightfully outraged. We were asked two main questions:
How can they ignore the health of the springs and Santa Fe River?
How can they ignore the voices of so many people who oppose this permit?
It’s important to understand what the judge was ruling on. Only technical details about the permit were raised during that hearing because those were the only issues brought forth by the district in their initial recommendation to deny the permit. Despite the efforts of the local advocacy group "Our Santa Fe River" to bring ecological and scientific concerns to the case, neither the health of the Santa Fe River nor the public interest were considered at the hearing. The judge can only rule on the issues brought before him.
Whether or not it is in the public interest to allow a multi-national corporation to withdraw a million gallons of water a day from an already impaired Outstanding Florida Water to be bottled and shipped across the country was not taken into consideration. By Florida statute it is the responsibility of the SRWMD Governing Board, appointed by Governor DeSantis and confirmed by the Florida Senate, to decide if the permit is in the public interest. Unfortunately, what “in the public interest” means has never been well defined, and so is not truly considered, despite it being clearly required in the law.
The UF Law Conservation Clinic explored this question
In December 2020, Student Associates Courtney Meyer and Phil Sliger from the University of Florida Conservation Clinic wrote a highly informative white paper discussing the public interest test in consumptive use permitting.
If you're ready for a deep dive into the topic, a topic relevant to the legal challenge to the permit brought by Florida Springs Council and Our Santa Fe River in March, this is a great read to better understand this aspect of Florida water law.
Read the FULL UF LAW Conservation Clinic Policy paper HERE
Synopsis: Florida Statute § 373.223(1), which lays out the requirements for obtaining a water-use permit, requires proposed uses of water be “consistent with the public interest.” This Paper, written by UF Law Conservation Clinic Student Associates Courtney Meyer and Phil Sliger, offers an alternative to current methods, offering guiding principles the legislature, agencies, or courts should follow to define and apply the public interest test.