The Battles Over Bottled Water

Satellite photo showing diminished water levels, Lake Johnson, Florida;
water levels once reached to the upper edge of the
sandy areas of all the lakebeds in this image.
Image courtesy of Google and Florida Department of Natural Resources.

The Battles Over Bottled Water
| Published February 19, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

The St. Johns River Water Management District's Governing Board has again caved in to the whims of big business in Florida.

The group recently approved a consumptive use permit modification for Niagara Bottling, allowing the company to double the amount of water it draws from the fragile Floridan aquifer. In round figures, that amounts to 910,000 gallons per day for the next 20 years, give or take a couple of gallons and a few soon-to-be-extinct wetlands or ecosystems.

Niagara's Groveland facility will be obligated to draw water from deeper wells, and the district claims the move will "reduce Niagara's impacts" on water resources in Lake County. Impassioned opposition from Florida residents has held little sway with government in the Sunshine State, with power brokers controlling many decision-making bodies for generations.

Taxpayers have lost all faith in government officials, noting they constantly vote against the best interest of those who pay their salaries.

For years the District's hydrological experts have warned that the easily-obtainable water from the Upper Floridan Aquifer is diminishing, and with the loss of only 50,000 gallons per day, wetlands will dry up and lake levels will drop.

Residents living near the chain of lakes in Central Florida have made it abundantly clear they want pure drinking water, full lakes and sloppy wetlands. A lush and beautiful Florida is all they want.

Running a boat on the lake and watching their children swim in clean water is all they need—just as they've been doing for generations. Instead they look out their back door and see boathouses sticking up in the air, a dry and crusted lakebed, and the distant memory of what was once waterfront property.

The Floridan aquifer is the largest, oldest and deepest aquifer in the southeastern United States, stretching across more than 100,000 square miles. It runs under all of Florida, along with parts of southern Alabama, southeastern Georgia and southern South Carolina.

Florida cities supplied by the aquifer include Daytona Beach, Deltona, Flagler Beach, Gainesville, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Tallahassee. It also covers several South Florida municipalities, along with numerous rural communities.

Water stored in the ground is like a bank account, so when your withdrawals outpace deposits, you have major account-supply problems.

Groundwater depletion is primarily caused by sustained groundwater pumping, according to the US Geological Survey. This action can have numerous adverse environmental ramifications, including dry wells, less water in streams and lakes, deteriorating water quality, increased pumping costs and land subsidence.

The first four damaging effects are self-explanatory, but land subsidence probably needs a definition. The quick version is that when you suck sub-surface water out of soil, the ground slowly collapses, compacts and drops, depending on several factors, including the type of soil and rock below the surface. This can sometimes produce those dramatic sinkholes we see on the news, now a persistent problem in Florida and some neighboring southern states.

If you're more of a common-sense type person, politically-connected businessmen have been building massive high-rise condominiums and buildings for several decades, then sucking water out from under the state. Liken the scenario to Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown just before he kicks it.

Irate Floridians were quite vociferous about their opinions at the District's February meeting in Palatka, but the entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Six of nine trustees are beholden to the development industry or to businesses seeking water, so it was no surprise they adopted a proposal that will haunt the southeast for decades. The meeting was held in the middle of the week, and the District's office is conveniently located almost 110 miles from downtown Orlando and 90 miles from Groveland.

Numerous residents came from as far as Orlando, Jacksonville and several Central Florida counties, urging the St. Johns River Water Management District not to grant Niagara's request to increase pumping at its Groveland facility. Some expressed outrage that a California company was being allowed to take such a massive amount of water from the aquifer, while Central Floridians are already suffering under horrid water restrictions.

Many of these citizens are under mandatory lawn-watering restrictions, while they're already facing shriveling springs and lakes, along with shrinking drinking water supplies.

"There are hundreds of people who would have made this trip but for the distance and it being in the middle of the workday," said Clay Townsend, a Morgan & Morgan lawyer representing another of the firm's lawyers who lives near the Niagara plant.

Please hazard a guess as to how many of 19 million Floridians spoke in support of Niagara. Three guesses, and the first two don't count. That's correct, zero. However, there were 29 citizens who implored the board to deny the application.

Bupkis and vacuous are two words that spring to mind when I think of Niagara's position on this matter, along with a few lines from the truly great Sid Behrman—author of the World's Funniest Lawyer Jokes.

Ed de la Parte, who has worked for many utilities and specializes in water-fight lawsuits, said it wouldn't be fair to deny Niagara's permit with more than a dozen other beverage plants operating in the district. He also noted that the proposed increase would cause no harm to the environment—an analysis formed entirely from the company's own analysis and the position of the district.

"It's not about emotion," de la Parte said. "We have to deal with the best scientific information."

Niagara has agreed to dig a deep well that will reach into the lower section of the aquifer, which will hopefully lessen potential harm to wetlands, lakes and springs.

The company will be required to prove that pumping from a deeper well is less damaging to the aquifer and the region's environment. Many residents and businesses in south Lake County already hate the company, blaming Niagara for lower water levels and hence problems with the economy. Realtors, waterfront property and the fishing industry have been an integral part of the area for generations, so you can certainly understand the resentment.

Two board members voted against the increase: Maryam Ghyabi of Ormond Beach and Douglas Burnett of St. Augustine, who had a problem with granting a 20-year permit. John Miklos and Chuck Drake of Orlando were the Central Florida members who voted for the 910,000 gallons.

When they finish stealing Florida's water, the state will almost certainly be forced to sue Georgia, which has its own major water issues.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Water Rights and the Limits of Growth; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; December 22, 2013.