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Who Owns Florida's Water and Springs?

The clash started when the family that owns the land around the Ginnie Springs
recreational compound filed a water permit renewal with state water regulators.
For years, the family has allowed various corporations to draw water from the
springs and move it through a pipeline to a nearby plant, where it is bottled
for sale.

In the latest renewal, however, the family said it planned to quadruple the
amount of water historically pumped from Ginnie Springs to the full amount
allowed under the permit, more than a million gallons a day. That water would be
sold to Nestlé, which makes billions of dollars in North America every year
through a variety of bottled-water brands.

For Florida, decades of huge population growth and increased agricultural
irrigation have reduced the levels of the Floridan Aquifer, an underground
system of water-filled rocks that stretches 100,000 square miles and includes
parts of southern Georgia and Alabama.

The aquifer provides fresh water to millions of people in fast-growing cities
like Jacksonville and Orlando. In northern Florida, it supplies the springs,
which feed nearby rivers, like the Santa Fe River, that are popular ecotourism
spots and help drive local economies.

“It’s like a big Slurpee cup with about a million straws,” said Robert Knight,
an environmental scientist who runs the nonprofit Howard T. Odum Florida Springs

Dr. Knight estimates that as the demands on the aquifer have increased, average
flows into the various springs have declined by more than a third. Some springs
have dried up. Some coastal areas are seeing water that was once drinkable
become contaminated with saltwater from the sea.

In High Springs, the battle over water has sharply divided the small, rural

On one side are environmentalists, who rail against the notion of a corporation
using Florida’s natural resources for its own profit while adding to the problem
of single-use plastic bottles. They are joined by local business owners who
provide lodging, food and equipment rentals — canoes, inflatable tubes and
diving gear — to the tourists who come from around the world each year to enjoy
the natural springs.

They are facing off against the Wray family, which has owned the popular
recreational spot for generations. The Wrays argue that even the increased
amount of water that will be pumped represents less than three-quarters of one
percent of the water flowing into the nearby river from the springs on their
property. Some family members say the real problem is overpumping by large
agricultural operations.

According to water regulators, nearly 70 percent of the permitted water use in
the district is for agriculture or livestock use. Permits for bottled water make
up less than 1 percent.

“What’s really happening to the springs and to this river is agriculture. It’s
not the little old lady out there with her flowerpot. It’s 100 percent
agriculture,” Mr. Wray said at a conservation summit in High Springs in 2013. “I
guess we have to ask ourselves in the district are we going to keep permitting
when we know the state of the springs and the river?”
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