Nestle’s recent move into the Florida Springs Heartland (i) of Gilchrist County to bottle water from Ginnie Springs warrants full historical disclosure. In 2002 Coca Cola purchased the High Springs water bottling facility, originally built in 1998 and operated by AquaPenn Springwater Company owned by the Groupe DANONE (ii). This facility received ‘spring water” via a water use permit held by Seven Springs Water Company. Groundwater is extracted from the Floridan Aquifer (iii) through two conventional wells located in uplands several hundred yards away from the seven springs constituting the Ginnie Springs Group on the Ginnie Springs Outdoors’ private property. The Seven Springs permit was for the same 1.1 million gallons per day (GPD) currently being sought by Nestle’ (iv), but Coca Cola was only using about 200,000 GPD.

In 2004, as part of its global water sustainability program (v), Coca Cola hired local groundwater experts to provide a risk assessment considering the local hydrogeology and regional threats to the sustainability of ground and spring water.

Ultimately, it was concluded that neither the quality nor quantity of the natural groundwater feeding the Ginnie Springs Group and the Santa Fe River basin (vi) were sustainable. In the vulnerable limestone geology of north Florida, existing impacts and future threats include intensive agribusinesses, specifically dairy farms and irrigated row crops, and expanding urban development with irrigated and fertilized turfgrass (vii).

The High Springs bottling facility was determined to be one of Coca Cola’s most at-risk groundwater sources due to the natural vulnerability of the aquifer and the inadequacy of the tools being used by the Suwannee River Water Management District (viii), to effectively manage groundwater quantity and quality.

Despite Coca Cola’s investments they ultimately opted to sell the High Springs bottling plant in 2011 (ix). Though it was part of their broader decision to get out of the spring water bottling business altogether, those working closest with them at the time concluded that the District’s refusal to move toward sustainable groundwater management was a major factor in their decision.

Coca Cola was followed by two Canadian bottling companies who continued to bottle the same relatively small fraction of the Seven Springs Water Company’s permitted extraction. Not deterred by growing scientific evidence of aquifer and springs degradation (x), the state of Florida continued to issue more groundwater use permits to intensive agricultural operations, some next door to the Ginnie Springs property. All the while, local and regional spring flows have continued to decline, and groundwater nitrate levels have continued to rise.

Nestle’ Water, the world’s largest water company, is now on our springs’ doorstep and next in line to own and operate the High Springs plant. While the amount of water they wish to bottle at this facility is less than many existing agricultural permits, it represents a five-fold increase compared to the prior bottling operations. North Florida’s springs are already dying the death

of a thousand cuts. One more cut might not be the final one, but it certainly is not acceptable to the millions of visitors who enjoy Florida’s once amazing springs.

Nestle’ has the political clout and financial resources to be a good neighbor in north Florida. If they wish to be trusted and accepted, they must make a significant effort to reduce regional groundwater pumping and nitrogen pollution. Through their political connections they can lobby Florida’s governor to appoint strong environmental voices to the governing boards of the state’s five water management districts.

Nestle’ Waters should also use their corporate influence to encourage the pro-development Associated Industries of Florida (xi) to push for a fee on all groundwater extractions and nitrogen fertilizer sales (xii).

Finally, with their financial clout Nestle’ should buy substantial acreage of existing dairies and other intensive, irrigated agricultural operations in Florida’s springs region, and place those lands in perpetual conservation easements that insure minimal water and nitrogen aquifer footprints.

Nestle’s goal should be to succeed where Coca Cola failed to coerce Florida’s environmental agencies to cap groundwater consumption and dramatically reduce the introduction of nitrate to the underground aquifer.

Until Ginnie and the other 1,000+ springs that make north Florida special show significant increases in their long-term average flows and reductions in their nitrate concentrations, Nestle’ and any other extractive or polluting industries are not welcome in the Springs Heartland.

–  Dr. Robert Knight is an environmental scientist who has studied Florida’s springs for 40 years and is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute located in High Springs, Florida.

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