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Bottled Water Is Sucking Florida Dry

By Austin Becker September 23, 2019

The state’s aquifers are shrinking, yet corporations want to appropriate even more of them.

This article appeared first on The New York Times

Mr. Sainato and Ms. Skojec are journalists

Sept. 15, 2019

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world, but they are being devastated by increasing pollution and drastic declines in water flow. Some springs have dried up from overextraction; others have shown signs of saltwater intrusion and harmful algae blooms.

At least 60 springs discharge from the Floridan aquifer into the Santa Fe River, which runs 75 miles through north-central Florida. This aquifer is the primary source of drinking water in the state. State and local governments have continued to issue water bottling extraction permits that prevent the aquifer from recharging.

The answer to this problem is simple: No more extraction permits should be granted, and existing permits should be reduced with the goal of eliminating bottled water production entirely in Florida. At the very least, corporations should be taxed for the water they now extract free of charge. That revenue can be used to pay for water infrastructure projects.

In the next few months, a company called Seven Springs Water, which supplies Nestlé with water for one of its Florida bottling operations is, with Nestlé’s assistance, set to renew its permit at Ginnie Springs, one of the most popular recreational attractions along the Santa Fe River. The permit allows the holder to take one million gallons per day at no cost, with just a one-time $115 application fee. A Nestlé spokesman declined to specify what it pays Seven Springs for the water, but said it was comparable to what the company would pay for purchasing water from a municipal water supplier.

That, in fact, is what other large water bottling companies do in Florida — purchase water directly from municipal water sources — but Nestlé, the largest bottled water company in the world with 48 brands in its portfolio, typically takes water directly from the source.

“When the bottling companies come in, they’re taking the water away and we get no benefit,” said Michael Roth, president of Our Santa Fe River, an environmental nonprofit.

Nestlé’s water extraction practices have incited community pushback in San Bernardino, Calif., where the company gets water for its Arrowhead brand from a national forest struggling with significant drought, and in Osceola County, Mich., where residents are fighting against the company in court to prevent surges in water extraction from local resources.

Nestlé’s water extraction practices have incited community pushback in San Bernardino, Calif., where the company gets water for its Arrowhead brand from a national forest struggling with significant drought, and in Osceola County, Mich., where residents are fighting against the company in court to prevent surges in water extraction from local resources.

The Florida Springs Institute in August reported that groundwater extractions need to be reduced by 50 percent or more in North Florida to restore average spring flows to 95 percent of their previous levels. From 1950 to 2010, average spring flows in Florida declined by 32 percent as groundwater use increased by 400 percent.

“There is no more water to give out from the Santa Fe River,” said Robert Knight, an environmental scientist and the executive director of the Florida Springs Institute. “The aquifer levels are coming down about an inch per year on average. Every year the aquifer level drops there is less pressure and flow at the springs.”

Dr. Knight noted that average flow in the Santa Fe River has declined 30 percent to 40 percent. The Florida Springs Institute rates Ginnie Springs’s ecological health a D-plus.

He cited another Nestlé water bottling operation in Florida, at Madison Blue Spring, where declining spring flows worsen periodic backflows into the springs from the Withlacoochee River it feeds into, contaminating the aquifer. Untreated wastewater discharged into the river upstream in Georgia has made Madison Blue Springs frequently unsuitable for water bottling. The water at Ginnie Springs suffers from nitrate pollution from wastewater, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, which can cause algal blooms and hurt human health. 

Nestlé has incensed other communities in the United States. In Michigan, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the grass-roots nonprofit organization Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation filed an appeal of a decision to allow Nestlé to increase water pumping from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute from a spring aquifer in Osceola County.

In April 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved Nestlé’s application to increase water extraction to 400 gallons per minute. Nestlé pays a $200 annual administrative fee to extract millions of gallons of water from Michigan every year. Residents of Flint have noted that while Nestlé pays practically nothing for water, they are faced with high bills for poisoned water and have to rely on purchased bottled water.

Osceola Township, the site of Nestlé’s well, is also appealing a ruling that allows Nestlé to build a booster pump and extract more water.

“This is a poor, rural township. Nestlé goes to towns like these with economic promises of development of jobs, and gives nothing back,” said Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. “Other bottled water companies tend to purchase their water from municipal water systems. They’re not drawing it from springs that are part of the public commons.”

Her group has fought Nestlé since it began water bottling operations in Michigan in 2000. In 2009, the group won a settlement to reduce Nestlé’s water pumping by nearly half at its operation in Mecosta, about 25 miles south of Osceola Township.

In California, environmental groups are also battling Nestlé’s water bottle operation in the San Bernardino National Forest, an area suffering from drought.

“All the climate change modeling that has been done suggests Southern California mountains are going to get drier and hotter,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The United States Forest Service is monitoring Nestlé’s water extraction to determine the effect on surface water flows. Nestlé reported pumping 45 million gallons of water from forest springs in 2018, for which it paid nothing more than an initial $2,000 federal permit fee. The California Water Resources Control Board is investigating whether Nestlé has taken more water from the springs than authorized.

For residents near Ginnie Springs, Fla., where Nestlé is set to expand its bottled water operation, the town frequently issues boil-water advisories and Florida taxpayers spend millions of dollars annually on aquifer recharge programs. Florida should prioritize providing safe drinking water for its residents, rather than bottling that water to resell elsewhere.

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