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.