The River of Discords

As with most things in Florida, the problems facing the Santa Fe River and the state’s springs defy easy narratives.

MERRILLEE MALWITZ-JIPSON paddles her gray-speckled kayak along the Santa Fe River near Gainesville, Florida on a November day. The sun is warm, the wind brisk — a chilly day by Florida standards, in the low 70s. She wears a flannel and gloves, with a purple and pink knitted scarf around her neck. Puffy cumulous clouds hang in the Florida sky.

Merrillee can’t believe what a gorgeous and beautiful and perfect day it is on the water. Bald cypress trees line the banks, palms and pines peeking between them, creating a canopied tunnel, like a portal into a world separate from our own.

But even on a day like today, Merrillee’s duties as the river’s guardian don’t stop. She fusses over graffiti sprayed on cypress trunks. She picks up floating beer cans and calls to report illegal campers on state-protected lands. She documents how a landowner widened the shoreline of a spring, an act of ecological malfeasance. “If not me, then who?” she asks aloud. Anyone can recognize the beauty of the river and springs, but few care to see the creep of their destruction, their death by a thousand cuts. How springs that once shot like a super soaker through the surface barely gurgle. How water that for centuries was a see-through blue has mutated into a mucky brown-green. How all those nitrates, phosphates, and pharmaceuticals circulate beneath the springs in the Floridan Aquifer.

Anyone can recognize the beauty of the river and springs, but few care to see the creep of their destruction, their death by a thousand cuts.

But what draws Merrillee’s full burning ire is Nestlé, a foreign invader that hoovers this spring water at its purest source, bottles it in plastic, and ships it beyond the springshed to never return again. In 2019, Nestlé announced its intention to start pumping more than a million gallons per day from Ginnie Springs, which feeds into the Santa Fe near the town of High Springs. That withdrawal almost triples historic averages, from a river the Florida Department of Environmental Protection classifies as “impaired.” The move initially received national media attention, including from NPR and the New York Times, but 18 months later the battle continues under the cover of legal darkness. On the frontlines, taking on the multibillion-dollar global corporation, Merrillee and fellow “kayaktivists” remain resolute, battling Nestlé over every inch of the Santa Fe.

Nestlé isn’t the only threat to the river. In fact, it’s far from the worst. Before the corporation showed up, the Santa Fe had already been facing increasing pressure from the region’s agriculture and industry. But, according to Merrillee, Nestlé poses an unnecessary threat — a “water grab” that stresses an impaired river system and gives nothing in return to the people who live near it.

For Merrillee, her mission is simple. She doesn’t do this much anymore, but before attending public meetings to defend the river, she used to walk to the Santa Fe’s shore and say a small prayer. “It’s gonna be a big meeting today,” she’d say. “Here I go.” Maybe to Jacksonville or Tallahassee where she’d place an algae-filled bottle on the podium, talk her allotted three minutes, and implore state regulators to better protect these precious waters.

“What can I do?” she’d ask the river. “I will be the voice.”

THE LARGEST COLLECTION of freshwater springs in the world stretches across north-central Florida, far beyond the white sand beaches, gated communities, amusement parks, luxury resorts, and other curated realities that signify Florida in the public imagination. Underneath these disparate worlds flows the Floridan Aquifer, an underground river system providing 90 percent of the state’s drinking water. Rainwater filters through the state’s foundational limestone in massive quantities and fills the aquifer, which acts like a fossilized sponge, storing water until pressure releases it to the benefit of humans and wildlife.

What separates Florida from the ocean, an old saying goes, is not the presence of land, but freshwater. Photo Daniel Piraino.

This a land where moisture assaults your every breath, where you can get lost in ways both good and bad. Photo of Juniper Springs by apasciuto / Flickr.

The landscape around these springs can be unforgiving. Photo by Andy Wraithmell / Florida Fish and Wildlife Department.

What separates Florida from the ocean, an old saying goes, is not the presence of land, but freshwater. The springs harken to an era, lasting many centuries, when Florida belonged to the water. This fluid province is a messy, sweaty, yet soothing terrain with foliage so thick the sun shines in streaks and water so clear it looks like gin. The landscape around these springs can be unforgiving, full of venomous snakes and silent predators — a land where moisture assaults your every breath, where you can get lost in ways both good and bad.

This is a domain that, contrary to historical narratives, conquered Spanish conquistadors like the famed Hernando de Soto. Between 1513 and 1565, Spain sent eight expeditions to establish rule in Florida. All these “conquests,” including Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth, ended in ruin and death and no rule established. Conquistadors often dismissed their orders and instead searched unsuccessfully for one of two prizes: gold or a route to China. (Florida is the only state that produces no metals.) De Soto’s 1539 exploration first landed in present-day Tampa and traveled north. When the crew reached the Santa Fe, news spread that an earlier Spanish expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, failed in this section of Florida, overwhelmed by the abundance of throttling waterways and swampy marshes. The majority of those men died. Narváez himself drowned. A quarrel broke out among de Soto’s crew, some wishing to retreat, others spurred onward to riches. De Soto, fond of naming landmarks, declared the Santa Fe “River las Discordias” — the River of Discords.

The bounty seekers won out and the expedition continued on. About half the men would eventually perish. De Soto would take his last breath on the banks of the Mississippi, dying of an unspecified fever.

Florida’s springs avoided formal exploration for another two centuries. Right around the time the nation’s Founding Fathers were debating American independence, the naturalist William Bartram left Philadelphia to study Florida’s native flora and fauna. His writings constitute the earliest records of Florida’s natural state, back when England, France, and Spain had separately tried to settle the land and failed, the ground too porous and sandy for traditional European farming. Upon encountering the springs, Bartram marveled, describing them as a “blue ether of another world.” Reaching Manatee Springs in 1774, about 45 miles west of Gainesville, he writes in Bartram’s Travels of a “grand fountain” with an “astonishing ebullition” of spring-fed water. “This charming nympheum,” he adds, “is the product of primitive nature, not to be imitated much less equalled by the united effort of human power and ingenuity!”

The water keeps decreasing and the land, industry, and people, increasing.

That romance wouldn’t endure. After Florida officially joined the Union in 1845, politicians became desperate to grow the state’s economy, among the nation’s poorest. They took aim at the state’s millions of acres of freshwater marshlands and undeveloped swamplands. In 1904, Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward promised to build an “Empire of the Everglades,” squeezing every last drop of water from the “pestilence-ridden swamp.” Developers drained wetlands and tapped into the groundwater, creating land for housing and agriculture. As the population expanded — fifteen-fold between 1900 and 2000 — so did the state’s industry and development.

Today Florida, one of the wettest states in the country, is drying up. The water keeps decreasing and the land, industry, and people, increasing. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection now warns that “existing sources of water will not adequately meet the reasonable-beneficial needs for the next 20 years” without new planning efforts. Though the state spends billions of taxpayer funds to save these waters, regulators give away that same water at hot discounts to bottlers, power plants, industrial cattle ranches, manicured golf courses and estates, citrus and sugarcane farms. This subsidy could cost the Floridan Aquifer, which has also been contaminated by chemical runoff, algae blooms, and saltwater as sea levels rise.

The Santa Fe River, home to more than 30 named springs, has seen average flows fall by 50 percent over the past 50 years. Photo by John Moran.

Before Florida puckers up, corporations like Nestlé want a squeeze of the action. How could you blame them? It’s smart business for the outsiders, even if it spells bad news for the state’s springs and waterways, which have become sites of unchecked extraction and decades-long public debates. “Ecological destruction in Florida is nothing less than economic suicide,” said Governor Reubin Askew in 1971. It is unclear whether subsequent administrations ignored such warnings or were just curious to test the hypothesis.

THE SANTA FE RIVER makes explicit that line between what you can see and what you must believe. It flows five kilometers underground before appearing with topaz-blue springs hidden along its edges. The river’s waters are glassy but opaque, stained a tea color through tannins released by cypress roots. Those trees form a wall along the shoreline, obscuring what or who might lurk beyond or below the river. Alligators, black bears, Florida panthers, and other predators know the line well and use it to their advantage. Here lies the heart of Merrillee’s work: to reveal the river’s human predators who’d rather operate in the shadows as well.

An artist by training and spirit, Merrillee (friend and foe alike know her by her first name) always wanted to launch her own art movement. When she lived in Miami Beach, she produced the work you’d might expect from a Miami Beach artist. Colorful, garish, fun. Pop. She made hundreds, if not thousands, of paintings in that style. Until one day she realized: This is not the movement I want.

She started a family and ended up in a house along the Santa Fe. She breathed. She began visiting the river, speaking to it. With her artist’s eye, she noticed the beauty in the place, and she made a promise — to herself, to the river — to protect it. “Okay, maybe this is the movement,” she thought. Merrillee now sits on the board of directors for Our Santa Fe River (OSFR), a small environmental advocacy group that has spent the past 15 years trying to save the Santa Fe River from a system destined to tap it dry. They petition officials at public hearings, alert community members of the backdoor bureaucracy, and lead protest paddles in kayaks down the Santa Fe.

In a conference room at Rum 138, a water adventure outfitter and concert venue she co-owns with her husband Doug, Merrillee lays out documents related to the ongoing bottling permit renewal involving Nestlé. Ginnie Springs is privately owned by the Wray family, which has held the bottling permit for more than 25 years, selling spring water to multiple bottlers like Coca-Cola and Ice River Springs. Throughout that period the average extraction never rose above 270,000 gallons per day, though the Wrays’ permit allowed up to 1.152 million gallons per day. When Nestlé arrived in 2019, striking a deal with the Wrays, the company caused an uproar by announcing its intention to pump the full allotted amount. The permit, however, was set to expire that same year and a renewal was required.

Bottlers like Nestlé pose an unnecessary threat to the Santa Fe, one that stresses the river system without giving anything in return to the people who live near it. Photo by John Moran.

Water management districts, established in 1972 by Gov. Askew to regulate “reasonable and beneficial” water use consistent with the public interest, rarely deny a renewal. Fierce community input and science seemed to change their minds in March last year, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began ravaging the United States. The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), which oversees the Santa Fe and Ginnie Springs, had its experts recommend denying the Wray permit. The bright media spotlight on the issue dimmed around then, which is when the lawyers entered the picture. Nestlé and the Wrays filed a petition against the water managers, requesting an official administrative hearing. Folks from each side entered a closed room with sealed walls and re-emerged that August with an announcement — the permit decision would receive a vote that month from the SRWMD board since Nestlé had agreed to extract 150,000 gallons less per day. OSFR and other community organizers flooded the August virtual meeting, prepared to voice their opposition once again. But the board tabled the vote, stating a decision of this magnitude required an in-person meeting, not a virtual one. Nestlé was allowed to keep pumping spring water with the permit in limbo, withdrawing almost 10 million gallons that month.

The Santa Fe River, home to over 30 named springs, has seen average flows fall by 50 percent over the past 50 years. Springs across Florida currently flow at 30 to 50 percent of their historical averages while levels in the aquifer have dropped three feet in the past 20 years. According to a study by the Florida Springs Institute, nitrate levels at Ginnie are 3.7 times above the state recommended maximum. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection designates the Santa Fe River system an “Outstanding Florida Water,” which are waters “worthy of special protection because of their natural attributes,” though the agency classifies 80 percent of these waters as “impaired” due to inordinate pollution.

The warnings bear little to no weight by design, says State Representative Anna Eskamani, who opposes Nestlé and was first elected to represent Orlando District 47 in 2018. “I kind of grew up into politics always knowing that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was a rubber stamp for development,” she says.

In Florida, environmental protection resembles pricey landscape restoration, often delayed until the damage is done. Only when the Everglades was on its last leg, in 2000, did President George W. Bush and Florida Governor Jeb Bush sign a historic $8 billion restoration plan to save the vital wetland. The current estimate for the Everglades Restoration Plan is $23 billion.

In Florida, environmental protection resembles pricey landscape restoration, often delayed until the damage is done.

This may be just how it works with the environment in Florida. In the 1960s, taxpayers spent $35 million to channelize the Kissimmee River, causing devastating ecological ruin, and have since spent more than $500 million fixing the mess. The pattern continues with the springs, as Florida has allocated $50 million in annual funding over the past four years for restoration, with $2.3 million dedicated for the Santa Fe River and Ginnie Springs. Meanwhile, no tax exists for bottling or pumping, only a one-time $115 application fee for a permit that can last up to 20 years. Money comes in, the water goes out. Throughout the state, regulators have issued 26 permits to bottlers that allow just under 4 billion gallons to be withdrawn each year.

Following this merry-go-round spinning out of control can drive many environmentalists dizzy, mad, or both. “It’s very defeating,” Terry Bryant, legislative chairman of the Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association, told me regarding his battles to protect Florida’s waters. “I really need to stop beating my head against the wall, people tell me. But if we didn’t do these things, think about how bad it will be.” Fellow activist Annette Long, former president of the defunct Save Our Suwannee, adds, “I have to keep my mouth shut to not get sued and not be threatened.”

Merrillee remains grounded. “I don’t get burned out,” she says. She can’t stop, because, as her catchphrase notes, “Nature doesn’t have a voice.”

For OSFR, she is the group’s anchor and sentinel, attending up to 30 public meetings per month, traveling to tiny towns, big cities, and wherever water is imperiled. “She has to have 36 hours in her day,” says OSFR President Mike Roth, “because I don’t know how she gets it all going. She’s involved in fights I don’t even know about.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection designates the river as both “impaired” and “worthy of special protection,” but the warnings bear little to no weight by design. Photo by John Moran.

Our Santa Fe River, a small environmentalist advocacy group, has spent the past 15 years trying to save the river from a system destined to tap it dry. Photo by Merillee Malwitz-Jipson.

Like the river, Merrillee knows only one direction: forward, as fast as the current allows. “I don’t get burned out,” she says. She can’t stop, because, as her catchphrase notes, “Nature doesn’t have a voice.” Photo by John Moran.

If she isn’t at meetings, she investigates water laws, reads about karst geology, or scours through documents for loopholes and contradictions. Or she is on the phone or email, following up on non-compliance activity or upcoming permit decisions. Or she is creating art inspired by her muse, the water. “I get tired just watching her,” says Doug, Merrillee’s husband of 21 years. Like the river, Merrillee knows only one direction — forward, as fast as the current allows.

“We need to have these people who are always on the frontline, standing in the face of bulldozers. That’s Merrillee,” says renowned underwater explorer Jill Heinerth, a close friend of hers. “That awakens and shocks people, right? But Merrillee is going to be constantly met with pushback. There are people in politics who will never listen to a word she says, because she’s the enemy to them.”

So what’s the value of a voice if it falls on deaf ears?

ALL ACROSS NORTH AMERICA, water advocates are rallying against Nestlé, a corporation that made $92.5 billion in 2019 worldwide sales. As it happens, multiple water permits held by Nestlé or its partners — including ones in White Pine Springs near Flint, Michigan, where residents still lack access to clean drinking water, and the Arrowhead Complex in California’s San Bernardino Forest, among the most wildfire prone forests in the country — are up for renewal in predominantly rural communities. Grassroots campaigns, much like Merrillee’s, oppose them all.

Nestlé is an easy company to hate. Scandals have ripped the company, ranging from child labor use, plastic pollution, and convincing undeveloped African nations its infant formula was superior to mothers’ breast milk. When the company sets its sights on a community, many residents must play an exhausting game of whack-a-mole to convince it to leave.

In 2016 voters in Cascade Locks, Oregon, approved a ballot measure to prohibit water bottlers after learning of Nestlé’s plans to draw water from a spring in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Photo by Terry Chay.

In 2016, for instance, voters in Cascade Locks, Oregon, approved a ballot measure to prohibit water bottlers after learning of Nestlé’s plans to draw water from Oxbow Springs. Residents voted the company out. That August the mayor of Waitsburg, Washington (a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Cascade Locks) resigned after the public discovered he’d received Nestlé’s pitch several times in private, undisclosed meetings. The following year, through a public records request, citizens in Goldendale (just a three-hour drive away from Waitsburg) also learned that the city’s mayor and chamber of commerce were soliciting a Nestlé deal behind closed doors. That deal died once that information became public.

“Nestlé prefers to operate under the cover of darkness,” says Michael O’Heaney, executive director of Story of Stuff, an environmental group fighting Nestlé’s bottling permits. “And then they prefer to operate inside the box. They want you in these regulatory and legal fights because they have bottomless pockets and expertise and have forged connections with decision makers.”

Back in Florida, within days of publicly opposing Nestlé, Rep. Eskamani had a Nestlé lobbyist knocking on her door. Our Santa Fe River, in preparation for a future legal battle with the company, hopes to raise $50,000 in funds. Nestlé made $5.4 billion in US bottled water sales alone in 2018, about 30 percent of the American bottled water market. That legal battle could come soon. In January, an administrative law judge ruled the Ginnie Springs permit renewal should be granted, ignoring the SRWMD’s recommendations. An official vote is expected early this year.

By then, activists will likely face a new adversary: Right before this story went to press, Nestlé announced the sale of its North American bottled water brands to the private equity firm One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos & Co. for $4.3 billion. Whoever the ultimate standoff features, denying the permit may represent a Pyrrhic victory for the springs. That one battle won’t win the larger war.

“You take the bottled water away and then we have to focus on what’s really the problem.”

“Shutting down the entire water bottling industry will not have any effect whatsoever,” says Todd Kincaid, a groundwater scientist and executive director of the diver-community focused conservation group Project Baseline. Florida policy places no cap on possible groundwater extraction. Kincaid warns if you pull the plug on Nestlé, the state will simply redirect its allocation elsewhere. The elephant in the room isn’t Nestlé, he argues, but development and industrial agriculture, the latter of which pumps more than two billion gallons per day — half groundwater, half surface water — to irrigate crops.

Bottled water permits total only about 11 million gallons of the 3.6 billion gallons of groundwater extracted per day, according to 2015 US Geological Survey data.

Florida soil, which is predominantly made of sand, doesn’t provide ideal farming conditions, and farmers liberally spray nitrogen-rich fertilizers to yield profitable crops. Runoff from farms ignites algal blooms. These green flotillas of slimy armies have invaded Florida’s waterways, depleting the water’s oxygen and choked subaquatic wildlife and vegetation. The springs have it the worst as nitrates seep past the soil and limestone, through the aquifer, and back up the springs, ravaging their waters above and below. The Florida springs may be designed to replenish themselves, but they’ve become vehicles for their own destruction.

“People will say, Oh, well, you got to eat so we have to protect our growers,” Kincaid says. “Well, then write your springs off. Because it doesn’t matter. If you take out Nestlé, if you take out water bottling, and you don’t do anything about ag, it’s all for nothing. They’re all going to be gone.”

Though Kincaid is unpopular in some advocacy circles for his views on bottling, he is not alone. “Bottled water is not the bad guy in Florida,” says Annette Long. “I would much rather have 10 bottle water plants than the one giant farm field next to my house.”

We want simple stories. We want obvious heroes and villains. But the plight of the springs, as with so much else in Florida, defy such easy narratives.

THIS PAST HALLOWEEN Merrillee hosted a socially distanced fundraiser at Rum 138, down the road from the Santa Fe River. Audience members wore costumes and watched a small concert put on by Gainesville musicians. Off to the side, rows and rows of empty plastic water bottles hung from an overhead booth, reminding the community of the ongoing fight.

While Merrillee ultimately agrees with Kincaid about the elephants of agriculture and industry in Florida’s water wars, she believes engaging those enemies is a losing proposition unless folks first stop seeing water as a commodity. “You take the bottled water away and then we have to focus on what’s really the problem,” Merrillee later tells me.

A local artist, who goes by Lunchbox, took the stage and wailed a tune he’d written for the event: Oh I know an enemy / Yes I know a foe / Who even now schemes / To steal the springs’ flow.

Merrillee always wanted to give the river a voice, to show the public their efforts could change the river’s fate. Hers may remain among the loudest, but it is far from the only one. The river and springs don’t just have a voice, but a chorus of voices. They may not sing in harmony, but still they sing.

Back on stage, Lunchbox launches into his song’s final verse: They can’t sell what they don’t own! / To them it’s just a tiny stream / But we’re the ones who keep it clean / Let us stop Nestlé’s evil dream. The crowd offers a few encouraging hollers. Then comes the final hook: Every concert every band / every woman every man / We say let it flow / We say let it flow.

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