Judge Backs Permit in Florida Springs Fight

TALLAHASSEE — After years of legal battling, an administrative law judge Tuesday supported renewing a permit to allow piping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day to a North Florida bottling plant.

Judge Francine Ffolkes rejected arguments raised by the Florida Springs Council and said the Suwannee River Water Management District should issue the permit for Seven Springs Water Co. Under administrative law, Ffolkes’ ruling is a recommended order that will go back to the district for final action.

The issue centers on a request by Seven Springs to renew a permit, first issued in 1994, to pump water and send it to a nearby bottling plant in the Ginnie Springs area of Gilchrist County. Seven Springs filed the renewal application in 2019, but it ran into heavy opposition from people and groups concerned about issues such as effects on water flow in the Lower Santa Fe River.

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The water management district in 2020 indicated it would not issue the permit, but Seven Springs challenged the decision. Administrative Law Judge G.W. Chisenhall sided with Seven Springs, leading the district in 2021 to issue an order approving the permit.

That approval touched off a challenge from the Florida Springs Council, ultimately leading to Ffolkes’ decision Tuesday. At least in part, the Florida Springs Council argued the renewal would not be in the “public interest.”

But Ffolkes wrote that Seven Seas “provided reasonable assurance that its proposed use is reasonable-beneficial and consistent with the public interest.” She also rejected arguments about an estimated 19,000 public comments that were submitted to the district about the issue.

“FSC (the Florida Springs Council) could not point to any rule or statute supporting its contention that the large number of public comments meant that the permit was not consistent with the public interest,” Ffolkes wrote. “There is no provision in the rules or statutes that the basis of issuance of a water use permit is determined by the number of public comments received.”

Under the application, Seven Springs would be able to pump an average of 984,000 gallons of water a day. The water would be bottled at the facility owned by BlueTriton Brands.

In the past, Seven Springs’ permit allowed average water withdrawals of 1.152 million gallons a day. A document filed in July by the Florida Springs Council said in the past the actual average withdrawals were between 300,000 and 400,000 gallons a day but that renovations to the bottling plant would allow it to process more water.

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“Because of the improvements at the bottling facility, the actual withdrawals of groundwater near the Lower Santa Fe would increase from 300,000 to 400,000 gallons a day to close to its permitted allocation of 984,000 gallons per day,” the document said. “Such an increase would cause a larger potential impact to the Lower Santa Fe River and associated springs than has historically occurred, and result in further significant harm to the water resources or ecology of the area.”

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