Recently Seven Springs Water asked the Suwannee River Management District (SRWMD) to renew their permit to withdraw up to 1.152 gallons of water per day near the Santa Fe River. The water would be bottled and sold by the Nestle Corporation.
The question at the heart of the Seven Springs/Nestlé permit application, therefore, is whether changing conditions in our waters and a better understanding of Florida’s hydrology should alter the way Florida permits large water uses. We believe it should.
The Florida Springs Council opposes renewal of the Seven Springs/Nestle permit because it does not meet multiple requirements under state law. We also
fully realize that the problems facing Florida’s waters are much greater than any one permit application.
To protect and restore Florida’s springs and rivers we must:
1. fix Florida’s broken water permitting system;
2. fill water management district governing board vacancies with diverse and qualified appointees; and
3. stop giving away Florida’s water at virtually no cost.
1. Broken Water Use Permitting System
Due to a perceived over-abundance of freshwater, Florida’s water management districts historically handed out water use permits to anyone with the nominal application fee and a dream. There has been minimal consideration of the cumulative impacts of water use permits in making permit decisions. Consequently, the health of Florida’s waters has declined significantly.
In Florida, permitting decisions are theoretically based on the ability of the water use to meet a “three-pronged test.” If properly applied, the three-pronged test balances the needs of water users, present and future, with the interest of the public. Picture it as the three legs of a stool supporting healthy waters on top.
The first leg requires that the use is “reasonable-beneficial,” that the water is not being wasted and is going towards some form of beneficial use. This should be the lowest bar for obtaining a consumptive use permit.
The second leg requires that the use not interfere with an existing legal use. For example, your withdrawal can’t dry up your neighbor’s well or prevent her from running her boat down the river.
The third leg requires that the use is consistent with the public interest. Unlike the first two, this leg is intended to weigh the costs and benefits of the proposed use in terms of the overall well-being of the people and waters.
It is the third leg that should protects us - recreational users, homeowners, and the public at large - from the impacts of over-pumping. Unfortunately, Florida’s water management districts have not properly defined and implemented the public interest test. As a result, this leg has been chopped off halfway and Florida’s waters teeter on the brink of collapse.
The Suwannee River Water Management District should define and place the greatest emphasis on the “public interest” when deciding on the Seven Springs water permit, as well as all other water use permits that come before the District.
2. Vacancies and Lack of Balance on WMD Governing Boards
Even the best rules are meaningless if we don’t have the best mix of people at the table making decisions. Each of Florida’s five water management districts is controlled by a Governing Board that has final decision-making authority over water use permitting. Board members are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Florida Senate. In previous decades, governing board members were drawn from various fields and expertise, from environmentalists to sugar farmers, which provided balance and diversity of perspective.
Today, however, four of five water management district boards operate with barely a quorum and have no representation at all from the environmental or scientific communities.
The Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board, which will consider the Seven Springs/Nestlé permit application, was forced to cancel its September 10th meeting because only four of the nine board seats were filled. Governor DeSantis belatedly reappointed two of Governor Scott’s nominees, including a pawn shop owner whose appointment was previously rescinded by the Governor, to make a quorum.
Similarly, the St. Johns River, Northwest Florida and the Southwest Florida Water Management Districts are all operating with barely more than a quorum. Among the four districts, only 23 of 40 seats are currently filled. At no point that we can remember have there been so many vacancies on these important boards.
Governor DeSantis has a historic opportunity to restore balance and diversity to these boards by appointing qualified representatives from the environmental and scientific communities to fill these vacancies. The Florida Springs Council has endorsed qualified candidates who have applied to serve on the district boards. Their appointment, or the appointment of similarly qualified individuals, is essential to the effective management of Florida’s water resources.
The districts above, including the Suwannee River Water Management District, should not consider or approve any consumptive use permits until the Governor has filled the governing board vacancies with qualified appointees.
3. Florida Gives its Most Precious Resource Away for Free
For even the largest permit holders, the only costs to use water are a nominal application fee and the cost of pumping the water out of the ground. Absent any fee or price control, there is little-to-no incentive for efficiency or conservation, leading to the overuse of water resources and forcing taxpayers to subsidize harmful water withdrawals.
Florida desperately needs more money to protect our waters and natural resources. Placing a reasonable fee on water withdrawals, determined by the amount and purpose of the use, is the most efficient and equitable means to raise money for water restoration projects while incentivizing water conservation.
For instance, a miniscule water use fee of one cent per gallon (about three cents per 24 pack of bottled water) on the proposed Seven Springs/Nestle permit would raise more than $400,000 each year for water restoration projects in this Santa Fe River basin. Expanded across the state, even a fee as low as fifty cents per one-thousand gallons would raise hundreds of millions of dollars to protect and sustain Florida’s waters. This is not a radical idea; California, among other states, charges a per-gallon fee for any water-bottling company.
The Florida Legislature should enact Legislation implementing a reasonable water use fee on large consumptive water uses, with the funds dedicated to the restoration and protection of water resources. Until that time, water management district governing boards need to place a moratorium on approving most consumptive use permits.
It is simply not in the public interest to continue giving away billions of gallons of water each day to massive out-of-state or international commercial operators for the benefit of their shareholders, while forcing Florida taxpayers to subsidize their operations and pay to repair the damage.
The Florida Springs Council opposes the issuance of any new or renewal consumptive water use permits, including Seven Springs, in areas already impacted by over-pumping until these serious flaws in how we permit and fund water use are addressed.