Florida’s picturesque Santa Fe River, home to the crystal blue waters of Ginnie Springs, is one of the treasures of the state as well as a playground for water sports enthusiasts and an ecologically critical haven for the numerous species of turtles that nest on its banks. Unfortunately, this gem of a habitat cherished by so many people (and animals) may soon contain substantially less water flowing through, if a plan by the food and beverage giant Nestlé wins approval.
The controversial move has outraged environmentalists and raised questions as to whether the authorities responsible for the health and vitality of the river really care. After all, Nestlé is seeking permission to take more than 1.1m gallons a day from the natural springs to sell back to the public as bottled water. Conservationists fear that if Nestlé’s plans go through, there will be considerably less water in Ginnie Springs which could destroy the ecosystem and endanger the wildlife.
George Ring, natural resources manager for Nestlé Waters North America, wrote in a June letter to the Suwannee district engineers:
The facility is in process of adding bottling capacity and expects significant increase in production volumes equal to the requested annual average daily withdrawal volume of approximately 1.152m gallons.
Those in opposition of this request say the fragile river, which is already officially deemed to be “in recovery” by the Suwannee River water management district after years of earlier over-pumping, cannot sustain such a large draw. Meanwhile, Nestlé denies this to be true and has spent millions of dollars this year buying and upgrading a water bottling plant at nearby High Springs in expectation of permission being granted. Nestlé insists spring water is a rapidly renewable resource. In a written statement, it promises a “robust” management plan in partnership with its local agents for long-term sustainability of its water sources.
Nestlé spokesman Adam Gaber, said:
We adhere to all relevant regulatory and state standards. Just like all the previous owners of the High Springs factory which manufactured bottled water and other beverages, we are not taking water from a publicly owned source. Instead we are buying water from a private company which holds the valid water use permit. Nestlé’s water use will always remain strictly within the limit set by the permit.
Nestlé is a responsible steward of the environment. Our business depends on the quality and sustainability of the water we are collecting. It would make no sense to invest millions of dollars into local operations just to deplete the natural resources on which our business relies. It would undermine the success of our business and go against every value we hold as people and as a company.
Campaigners against Nestlé’s plan have set up an online forum and petition and have submitted dozens of letters of opposition ahead of a decision that could come as early as November. They believe that environmental grounds alone should be enough to disqualify the plan.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, a director of the not-for-profit Our Santa Fe River, said:
The question is how much harm is it going to cause the spring, what kind of change is going to be made in that water system? The Santa Fe River is already in decline [and] there’s not enough water coming out of the aquifer itself to recharge these lovely, amazing springs that are iconic and culturally valued and important for natural systems and habitats. It’s impossible to withdraw millions of gallons of water and not have an impact. If you take any amount of water out of a glass you will always have less.
The Santa Fe River and its associated spring habitats are home to 11 native turtle species and four non-native species, which rely on a vigorous water flow and river levels. Few places on Earth have as many turtle species living together and about a quarter of all North American freshwater turtle species inhabit this small river system. A big threat to this diversity is habitat degradation, which will happen with reduced flows.
Another issue is that residents are appalled by the idea of a business practice that allows for taxpayer money to restore the spring, while allowing Nestlé to take water out. Jim Tatum, from the conservation group Our Santa Fe River, together with Malwitz-Jipson wrote in a column for the Gainesville Sun: