Forty-five minutes north of Gainesville lies Ginnie Springs, one of 60 natural springs that branch off the 75-mile Santa Fe and Suwannee River system.
Michael Roth, president of local non-profit Our Santa Fe River, said he’s lived on the river for more than 20 years and, through his organization, works to protect it and the springs.
“I sit over the river a lot on my dock, and I love that. And to me, that’s heaven,” he said.
But Roth’s slice of heaven is being threatened.
“The springs, which everybody’s seen pictures of the springs 20 years ago, you can see before where it’s clear, blue, beautiful and now, at it’s best, it’s a kind of aquamarine, hazy view,” he said.
Water at Ginnie Springs has been bottled and sold for the last 20 years. The Seven Springs Water Company captured about 300,000 gallons a day at its Ginnie Springs plant for the last four years — well under the 1.152 million gallons its permit allows.
But the plant was sold a year ago to Nestlé Waters, and now Nestlé is looking to pump the maximum amount.
“They insist ‘it’s not an increase in capacity; it’s always been that capacity.’ Well, the fact is, it’s akin to an increase in capacity because nobody’s used more than a quarter — they’re going to use it all,” Roth said.
The old Seven Springs permit expired in June, and while Nestlé waits to see if it can get another 20-year permit renewal from the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), the community has mobilized. With the final say in the hands of its six-member governing board, residents have poured out in numbers to voice their opposition.
A December SRWMD meeting turned into a rallying cry when dozens of people waited to address the board. Public comment lasted more than two hours with every speaker imploring the board to “say no to Nestlé.”
“They are taking community water, water that the community has a right to, water that the community has a right to manage for themselves and for future generations,” said Allison Guy, organizer with global non-profit, SumOfUs.
Residents said they worry about the current health of the river and that Nestlé’s increased pumping could cause serious damage to Ginnie Springs.
Spokeswoman for SRWMD Katelyn Potter said the health of the river and springs plays a large role in the board’s decision, so before it can vote on Seven Springs’ permit renewal, the district’s team of environmental experts must look at all potential impacts and risks.
“They are following the rules, they are following the statutes and they are giving every permit applicant the same opportunity to make their case of whether they should or shouldn’t have the water they’re requesting,” Potter said.
The SRWMD staff must make their recommendation to the board by Feb. 25. The board can then decide whether to approve or deny the permit.
Nestlé Waters North America released a statement addressing resident concerns stating it has a 25-year record of working on aquifer protection and recharge projects across the state, and it would not make sense to invest millions of dollars into local operations just to deplete the resources it relies on.
But, despite reassurances, many residents still worry whether Nestlé will be taking too much.
“You have a dying patient on the table here. The Santa Fe River isn’t even running at minimum flows,” Roth said. “If you take a spoonful of water out of a glass of water, it’s still less water. And if you’re dying of thirst, then it’s a lot of water.”
Correction appended: Seven Springs, not Nestlé, has requested a permit renewal and would be conducting additional pumping if permitted.