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A water bottling company wants to sell Florida's most endangered resources - water from its freshwater springs. Nestle wants to take more than a million gallons of water per day from Ginnie Springs. But environmental groups say the spring is in an area where groundwater levels are already far too low. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are more than a thousand freshwater springs in Florida providing drinking water, important natural habitat and places for recreation.
STEVE WALLBORN: Man overboard.
ALLEN: Steve Wallborn (ph) splashes into the Santa Fe River for a day of tubing. The river is fed by several freshwater sources, including Ginnie Springs. He's heard about Nestle's request to begin taking more than a million gallons a day from the spring.
WALLBORN: I think it's probably bad. I mean, I don't know the whole issue. You know, I'd like to know more about the facts before I make a decision, but I think it's bad. I think it's especially bad if it's going into individual-use plastic bottles. I know we have to get the water from somewhere. It's a shame it has to be from here.
ALLEN: Nestle and many other companies have bottled and sold Florida spring water for decades. For the past 20 years, Seven Springs, the company that owns the land around Ginnie Springs, has had a permit allowing it to take nearly 1.2 million gallons a day from its wells. During that time, working with other water bottlers, the company usually withdrew less than a quarter of that. Nestle now wants to increase the daily withdrawal to the full amount, a request that has set off alarm bells among environmental groups.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we do when the Santa Fe River is under attack?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Stand up, fight back.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we do when Ginnie Springs is under attack?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Stand up, fight back.
ALLEN: In the nearby town of High Springs, more than 100 activists held a demonstration recently opposing Seven Springs' request to renew its water use permit. Nearly 9,000 people have filed comments with the local water management district, most of them asking it to deny the permit request. Ryan Smart was with the Florida Springs Council.
RYAN SMART: It makes no sense to be giving away water, a million gallons a day, to an out-of-state bottling company at a time when our own river right here is suffering.
ALLEN: Four years ago, state water managers determined that the flow in the Santa Fe River and nearby springs had declined below a level that's sustainable, and action must be taken to help the aquifer recover. Bob Knight, the director of the Florida Springs Institute, says his studies show the flow down 28% from historic levels.
BOB KNIGHT: It's clear that they're past the point of harm, and when they decide that, the law says that they'll go into recovery, which they did, but unbelievably, that recovery strategy includes issuing more groundwater pumping permits.
ALLEN: Seven Springs says its studies show extracting that much water from the spring will reduce levels in a nearby wetland by less than an inch. The district is evaluating the permit request. Compared to water permits issued for dairy farms and other agricultural users, Seven Springs' permit isn't that big. But activists see Nestle, a well-known consumer brand, as an opportunity to focus on the need to better manage the state's groundwater. Knight is hoping Nestle will agree to help safeguard a precious resource.
KNIGHT: They have the financial resources to do that. What we need to do is actually reduce the amount of groundwater pumping to recover the Santa Fe River springs, and we need to reduce the amount of intensive agriculture that's around these springs that's leading to their pollution.
ALLEN: Environmental groups are pushing for Florida to adopt something it doesn't have now - a water use fee. Right now, the only money the state collects for the water is a one-time $115 application fee paid by the company doing the pumping, Seven Springs. Nestle won't say how much it's paying Seven Springs for the water, but Ryan Smart of the Florida Springs Council says under the current system, companies make millions of dollars from a public resource for which they pay little or nothing.
SMART: We're going to have to stop giving this water away and start charging a reasonable fee for it, and water bottling is a great place to start.
ALLEN: Nestle says it's committed to using sustainable practices. The company has worked with environmental groups in Florida in the past to protect groundwater from pollution and development. Activists are hoping for something similar at Ginnie Springs. Greg Allen, NPR News, High Springs, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.