This year, we saw the biggest environmental win in recent history when the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled in our favor in the BMAP Challenge. We were hopeful we’d see another victory in our case against the Seven Springs Water Company bottling permit. Unfortunately, our legal and permitting system is complicated and flawed. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) filed the recommended order for our "Nestle" case, recommending the Suwannee River Water Management District approve the permit. The District’s meeting to approve the permit is next week on Dec. 12 (more information about the meeting below).
The ALJ concluded that the requirement stating the water use be “in the public interest” was met simply by the permit holder providing assurances that they could process and sell the water. That is, the decision equated public interest to private financial interests. During the hearing the District made it clear that most of the thousands of public comments opposing the permit, and the harm it would cause to the springs and river, were not even taken into account when issuing the permit.
While this is a disappointing roadblock to protecting our water, this is a failure of the legal system not of environmental advocates.
Some takeaways from this decision:
There was one positive outcome. The first count of our challenge was won before the case was heard. BlueTriton, the company bottling and selling the spring water, will be listed on the permit, giving the District access to inspect and regulate the bottling facility. This wouldn’t have happened without legal action and the persistence of springs advocates.
This decision shows a failure of the permitting system that environmentalists have pointed to all along, which our next steps must address. The public interest was not considered despite being one of the three required elements in statute. Water use permitting is supposed to protect our springs and rivers from over-pumping, but it is failing. The permit was approved despite the fact that it would increase pumping from a spring/river system already designated by the state as “in recovery,” a designation given to rivers “experiencing significant harm.”
Our legal team is considering all the possible paths forward. FSC is determined to pursue the path that would yield the widest-reaching results and most efficient use of our resources. Two paths stand out:
Harm Rule - FSC is looking at legal options to force DEP to adopt an Outstanding Florida Springs harm rule as required by statute. In 2016, the Springs & Aquifer Protection Act was passed, requiring the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to “adopt uniform rules for issuing permits which prevent groundwater withdrawals that are harmful” to Outstanding Florida Springs. Instead of adopting this rule, DEP has ignored the law. If DEP had followed the law back in 2016, Seven Springs’ permit would have been denied or the bottling company would have been required to offset their withdrawals. Over 100 springs advocates showed up to DEP’s public workshop in August urging DEP to create a meaningful springs harm rule. DEP has yet to take any action following the public workshop.
Public Interest - Legal action is necessary to better define and implement the public interest in water permitting. The ALJ’s decision along with the District’s testimony and actions in this case clearly demonstrate that the public interest is not being considered in consumptive use permitting.
Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board Meeting Dec. 12
The ALJ’s decision is a recommendation to the Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board to approve the permit. The District will vote on whether or not to follow the ALJ’s recommendation at its upcoming board meeting and public hearing on Dec. 12 at 9 a.m. at the District Headquarters in Live Oak, Florida (9225 Co Rd 49, Live Oak, FL 32060). The Florida Springs Council’s attorneys and staff will be at the meeting, and it is open to the public. There will be an opportunity for public comment at the meeting.
On Feb. 23, 2021 the Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board (District) approved a controversial water use permit renewal requested by Seven Springs Water Company, owned by the operators of the Ginnie Springs campground, to provide nearly 1 million gallons of water per day to be bottled and sold by Nestle (now known as BlueTriton.)
The District approved the permit under protest after losing an earlier court case to Seven Springs Water Co. Nonetheless, in approving the water use permit, the District ignored a legal requirement to consider the public interest, violated their own rules, and exposed serious flaws in water use permitting.
The Florida Springs Council immediately filed a legal challenge to the permit to protect the rights of our members and protect the Santa Fe River.