Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Seven Springs – Nestle – Environmentalists: Does Everyone Want the Same Thing for the Santa Fe?

Part I: The speakers

Fort White Town Hall - standing room ony

FORT WHITE, FL – On Monday, December 9, 2019, The Town Council of Ft. White (population 717) was asked to tackle a big question: should the Council recommend not renewing the Seven Springs water permit which will allow it pump over 1 million gallons of water per day from the springs? Seven Springs sells its water to Nestle for bottled water.


Since 1998, Seven Springs, the owners of Ginnie Springs in Gilchrist County has been selling water to various water companies. While the water permit from the Suwannee River Water Management District allows the pumping of over 1 million gallons per day, the historical use has been about 270,000 gallons.

Recently, Seven Springs has entered into a contract with Nestle, the multi-national corporation that sells many brands of bottled water, worldwide.

Environmentalists and others say that Seven Springs will begin pumping more and more water – a continuing danger to the environment, river recovery, and the local tourism economy.

Seven Springs and Nestle say they are good stewards of the environment and will not be doing harm and provide good jobs through conscientious use of the water resource.

On October 3, 2019, in a last minute item added to its agenda, the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners voted by resolution to recommend not renewing the Seven Springs water permit.

Local environmental groups asked the Town Council of Fort White to do the same.

On December 9, 2019, the Town Council heard from both sides.

This is that story.

The Council Listens

The little meeting room in Fort White was standing room only with folks overflowing out the door. Both sides, those for the permit renewal and those against had their say. The speakers are presented in order of appearance.

Water icon Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson told the Council, "The water levels are going down. We have the science to prove it."

Nestle employee Jason Gruber said, "I'm a lifelong Floridian, born and raised in Madison. I've worked for Nestle for 5 years. I grew up swimming and fishing in these springs." He explained he builds docks, cleans up the river, and that Nestle supports the river and the environment.

George Ring: Nestle's natural resource manager
George Ring addresses the Ft. White Town Council.

George Ring, Nestlé's Natural Resource Manager, explained that Nestlé is not a new comer to Florida and has been in Florida for 30 years. "All that time we've been working with the authorities, with the water management district, making sure we're above and beyond...The amount of flow that we're talking about here...this comes out to be about a quarter of one percent of the overall flow. Do we have problems with ground water? Do we have problems with pumping? We may. This really isn't the issue, is it?"

Mr. Ring mentioned that other permits had not been brought before the Town Council along with resolutions to oppose them.

Mike Roth, President of Our Santa Fe River, explained that he wasn't there to knock Nestle. He said, "If you want to see what kind of company they are, just Google them or Google 'Nestle horror stories.' There are some really good people here. That is not who you are dealing with. You are dealing with a very large multi-national company and you are dealing with a philosophy that has been known to do damage to areas where the company exists.

Mr. Roth continued, "The Town of Fort White uses about 31 mil gallons of water a year. They (Seven Springs – Nestle) are looking to take about 14 times what the Town of Fort White uses. That's a lot of water."

Mr. Roth said the River is running under the minimum level established by the Water Management District.

Lane Tuten of Nestle and Suwannee County
Lane Tuten

Lane Tuten addressed the Council: "I am a farm kid, daughter of a 5th generation local farmer from Suwannee County; daughter of a retired school teacher, who takes care of one of my three monsters; the wife of an FFA advisor – teaches high school; also the proud factory manager in High Springs. I grew up in the Madison factory, working in quality, working with George (Ring) in his role making sure we made a good quality product and that we are good stewards of our environment and the spring sources... These are real people that you are dealing with, it's not a conglomerate. These are individuals in this room, born and raised here. All these people are local... They are not paid to be here. They are here because they love their jobs and they need their jobs to feed their families."

Seven Springs Owner: Risa Wray

Risa Wray, owner of Seven Springs, addresses the Ft White Town Council
Seven Springs - Ginnie Springs owner Risa Wray

Risa Wray, the owner of Seven Springs addressed the Council:  "Thanks for having me. I'm here for Seven Springs and I hear Nestle, Nestle, Nestle – this is my company's permit. We are a 4th generation family. We are a woman controlled business and I've read your resolution and I read that you want to protect Ginny Springs from Seven Springs. We are one family. Ginny Springs is owned by the people that own Seven Springs. We've been protecting this land for over 45 years..."

Ms. Wray explained that the family chose to keep the land "just like it is" rather that develop it. "One way we have been able to do that is sell the water. We don't want to stop that, because we like the fact that it [the land] is preserved and it benefits so many people by keeping it preserved, but you can't do it for nothing."

Ms. Wray explained that the springs and the river are a "lifelong love," continuing, "especially our father's, it's his legacy to protect this. For people to insinuate that we would allow it to be harmed is reprehensible. This family has fought off dairies; a dump from NY – the threat of harm from things like that are going to become bigger and this family is going to be struggling. Having Nestle as a partner to help us protect quality and sustainability is a drain, and people need to understand that."

Ms. Wray said of the folks from Nestle, "This is their community and they want to protect it as well."

"I'm asking for less that 1% of water that comes flowing off of our land. Not the people's land – our land. And in exchange – my gosh – 800 acres kept the way it's been since my grandparents, my great grandparents – this is old Florida."

Ms. Wray thanked the Council for listening.

Hildre Gilchrist of Our Sante Fe River told the Council, "We are here because we love the springs. The springs bring people from all over the world. I live on the river. I have watched the fish population decline. To take the permit that was given 20 years ago and take the maximum draw-down is just not logical for today and for our future, tomorrow."

Matt Douglas of Nestle addresses the Ft. White Town CouncilMatt Douglas: I'm a husband, father – five kids

Matt Douglas, a Nestle employee said, "I've been in the High Springs factory for about 8 years. I'm a husband, father – five kids; outdoorsman; spend my entire life on this river. I haven't seen any change my whole life on this river. It's always fluctuated up and down. We have people here to gage things.

Jim Tatum: The river has not been sustained

Jim Tatum, an outspoken and highly regarded spokesperson for the Santa Fe River addressed the Council: "Nestle talks about being sustainable. The Santa Fe River has not been sustained. It is in recovery and it is impaired. These are words that the DEP and the Water District have bestowed on this river. If it is recovery and it is impaired, how can Nestle say, 'We are sustaining it?"

"It has not been sustained and over the decades it is down 30%. This is a scientific fact. It is down 30% from what it was and it is going continuously down hill... Whatever amount [of water] you take out will delay the restoration time for the river. Seven Springs does not own the water underneath their land. They do not own the one percent. The state of Florida and the people of Florida own that water and it should not be given away to be sold."

Laura Daily, opposed the permit. She told the Council, "These people are helping to clean up the rivers because the rivers are getting trashed [with plastic water bottles, etc]. We get $23 mil a year in tax revenues from people using our rivers and springs. I want to know, if people stop using the springs, does this council have a Plan B to recoup those tax dollars that will not be flowing into this community."

Kristin Ruben of Save Our Sante Fe River addresses the Ft. White Town CouncilKristin Ruben: "Mark my words. You are going to have a water station."

Kristin Ruben told the Council: "I live on the river. I am a member of Our Santa Fe River. I am an extremely concerned citizen. Nestle – Seven Springs, call it what you will. It is a company coming in and taking our water. Taking our water, selling it back to us, polluting the rivers... and what's going to happen at some point, if we don't stop it now, we're going to have a water station. Mark my words. You are going to have a water station where you are going to have to go to get your water. This is our natural resources. It's not some corporation's that is from Switzerland."

Bruce Borders address the Fort White Town Council
Bruce Borders had an alternative to taking water from the river.

Bruce Borders, a life-long Columbian, told the Council, "My family goes back 8 generations here. I learned to swim in that river. There's all kinds of oceans around us. If you want some water, pump that water out and take the salt out of it. This is our water here."

The Last Speaker: Summed up what everyone wants

Shelda Wilkerson address the Ft. White Town Council
Shelda Wilkerson

Shelda Wilkerson came late to the meeting and missed most of the evening's conversation. She was the last speaker and after a brief introduction summed up what everybody wants: "I'm 3rd generation growing up on this river. My grandfather was born in Fort White in 1907. I'm an over the road truck driver."

Ms. Wilkerson concluded, "Please-please, keep our water safe...and protect our aquifer for future generations."

The Town Council Decision

In the end, after a brief discussion by the Town Council, the Council made no decision regarding its resolution not supporting the Seven Springs permit. 

Part II, coming tomorrow: how the Town Council arrived at no decision.

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