Water Permits in Profile: The Adena Springs Controversy

A request by Adena Springs Ranch, near Fort McCoy, Fla., to withdraw 13.2 million gallons a day from the Floridan Aquifer is being challenged by hundreds of people in north central Florida.

Owners of the 30,000-acre cattle ranch have applied to the St. Johns River Water Management District to pump more water daily than the 12 million gallons that the city of Ocala withdraws for public use.

The application is currently in the hands of the water management district for review.

Supporters of the project say that it will create local jobs and provide a clean industry for Marion County. Adena Springs Ranch wants the volume of water to irrigate land to raise grass-fed cattle.

Audience Adena Springs Ranch Forum

Audience at the April 3 public forum at the Ewers Century Center Klein Conference Room at College of Central Florida on water consumption and the Adena Springs Ranch permit.

Those against the project, as well as those who would like to see the consumptive use permit limit decreased, packed an auditorium at College of Central Florida in Ocala in early April to learn more about the impact of a planned beef operation that includes a slaughterhouse and packing plant. The meeting was organized by the Silver River Alliance, which formed in January 2012 to protect the heritage river and its first magnitude springs. Alliance members and area residents are concerned about the effect Adena Springs Ranch will have on water quality and quantity in the Silver River watershed, which stretches from Leesburg to Melrose and encompasses parts of Ocala National Forest and the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers. ?When I first heard about the grass-fed cattle proposal,? said Diana Kanoy, who owns an adjacent 50 acres. ?It seemed an acceptable alternative if the land were not to be kept as a tree farm, or ideally, allowed to revert to its natural state as a water absorption and regeneration area and corridor for wildlife.? Kanoy became alarmed, she said, when she discovered the extent of the operation and the amount of water it could consume from the Floridan aquifer. The aquifer is a natural underground reservoir that stretches from Florida to South Carolina that supplies nearly 90 percent of Floridians with fresh drinking water. ?This request for vast water consumption forebodes the ominous possibility of our wells drying up, the lakes receding, and even the trees dying, turning our homes and small farms into wastelands, and destroying our work and dreams of pleasant and productive country life,? she said. Stress to Florida?s water supply has become a concern across the state. The Adena Springs Ranch permit request poses another impact on the already stressed aquifer system, panelist Bob Knight said. Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, said he is not opposed ?conceptually? to the cattle ranch, but that the water use request is excessive. The quantity of the water requested ?represents the most efficient use of water possible for the requested,? attorney Edward de la Parte said in an email response to questions about the project. Some believe the meat production facility, owned by Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, is being built to take advantage of the lucrative market for grass-fed beef as more and people look for healthy and humane sources of food. Kanoy said some local residents see the ranch as a better alternative to other types of industry that might locate to Florida. Previous proposed use of the property, she said, included ?a paramilitary training camp? that the Marion County Zoning Commission rejected in 2008. In the midst of the current economic slowdown, Adena officials have pointed to jobs as a benefit of the facility, according to speakers at the meeting. Adena officials have estimated, in addition to the construction jobs, the facility will employee about 100 people. In permit requests filed with Marion County, Adena Ranch estimated its capital investment to be around $39 million.

Roy L. ?Robin? Lewis, panelist at the public forum about water consumption and the Adena Springs Ranch.

The operation has already received approval for slaughterhouse and meat processing facilities on one parcel where tree clearing and construction has begun. These activities were challenged in a letter to state officials from St. Petersburg attorney John Thomas on behalf of wetland expert Roy L. ?Robin? Lewis. Lewis?s four-page letter is supplemented by 31 pages of maps, tables, and charts that provide scientific and engineering data about why the Adena Springs Ranch will detrimental to Florida?s ecosystem, threatening springs and rivers as well as ground water quantity and quality. Stronach appears to have a voracious appetite for land, according to a story from the Canadian news publisher Macleans. He owns more than 70,000 acres around Ocala. With the huge commercial interest in water sales world-wide, a number of people at the meeting asked if the permit could be used for other purposes. If Adena wants to use the permit for something else, they will need to reapply, according to Mike Register, director for St. Johns River Water Management District Division Regulation Services. The permit would be valid for 20 years and with a 10-year compliance review, he added. The management district will likely approve the consumptive use permit, especially in the current political climate, Karen Ahlers said. Ahlers, a Putnam county resident, has retained the Southern Legal Counsel to monitor the permitting process and prepare for a lawsuit if necessary.
Karen Ahlers and Buddy McKay

Karen Ahlers, environmental activist; Debby Johnson, paralegal with Southern Legal Counsel; and Buddy McKay, former lieutenant governor and board member Southern Legal Counsel.

?I believe that we need the credible threat of a lawsuit,? which she said ?will encourage the district to do double duty to get it right.? Ahlers is a long-time activist for natural resources in Florida and has fought to restore the Ocklawaha River.

Adena Springs Ranch officials were invited to participate in the two-hour presentations and panel discussions, but declined according to moderator and president of the Silver Springs Alliance, Andy Kesselring. Present at the evening meeting were some members of the Marion County commission, as well as former Florida lieutenant governor Buddy McKay, a board member of the Southern Legal Counsel and a supporter of environmental issues in Florida. ?I am passionate about preserving Florida?s water,? said McKay, best remembered for his work to prevent stop the Cross Florida Barge with Marjorie Harris Carr. Lewis handed over a personal check for $5,000 to Neil Chonin of the Southern Legal Counsel to begin the support for legal action. Ahlers said about $250,000 are needed to monitor the approval process, gather scientific evidence of the negative impacts to water quality and quantity and to prepare a legal case should the permit be approved. ?The threat of a lawsuit and close scrutiny of the application process may be the only way to protect the interests of the public,? Ahlers said. ?We?re in this for the long haul. We will go forward until we have exhausted every legal remedy.? The challenge is not just drinking water, she said, but entire ecosystems. ?This is not just a Marion County issue. It is a statewide issue. A test of whether or not citizens of Florida are going to throw up their hands and allow corporate and political interests to destroy what is left of Florida?s natural resources,? Ahlers said.

Panel at Adena Springs Ranch Forum

Second group of panelists for the public forum about water consumption and the Adena Springs Ranch. From left to right: Mike Registers, St. Johns River Water Management District; Barbara Fitos, executive director Community Foundation for Ocala Marion County; Neil Chonin, environmental lawyer with Southern Justice Association; Roy L. ?Robin? Lewis, professional wetland scientist; Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute; Guy Marwick, executive director of the Felburn Foundation, and Andy Kesselring, president of the Silver Springs Alliance.

Participants at the meeting asked if irrigation water would filter back to the aquifer. ?That?s not the way it works,? Knight said. Typical overhead irrigation systems lose about? 70 percent of the water to evaporation. Another 10 percent will probably runoff, he said, moving toward the Ocklawaha River, he said giving at rough estimate at that about 20 percent of the water applied would actually recharge the aquifer. ?But what do think a million pounds of cow manure a day will do to the aquifer?? Guy Marwick, panelist and executive director of the Felburn Foundation and founder of the Silver River Museum, said. Florida?s fresh water supply is already threatened by high levels of nitrates from commercial and natural fertilizer, which contaminate springs and possibly the aquifer, according to Knight. Scotty Peterson, a student from Vanguard High School and one of the two student board members of the Silver Springs Alliance, did not think too much of the employment promises by Adena Springs Ranch. Silver Springs alone generates an estimated $60 million a year in tourism and recreation, Kesselring told the audience. ?Consider risking $60 million for 100 jobs?? he said. ?I don?t think so.? Of the 700 comments received by the St. Johns River Water Management District, most have been opposed to the project or requested more information, according to Mike Register, director for Division Regulation Services. De le Parte, however, does not believe the comments represent a sampling of Marion County citizens. Marion County has [331,000] residents, and of the comments received only about 200 from those in the county. The other comments, however, are from people who live within the watershed affected by the projects, as well as from those concerned about drawdown of the Florida aquifer. ?Like many projects of this type, it is much easier for persons to oppose to organize and express concern,? De le Parte said. ?The applicant is convinced there are many more citizens in support of the projects.? A review of the district permitting application for the project turned up very few supportive comments. Marion County commission candidate Butch Verrando, said in an interview that he commended the project for its compatibility with the local environment, its commitment to raising grass-fed beef, and the jobs it will provide for Marion County residents. ?There?s a segment of the population here that wants to push ?ecotourism.? But that does not bring enough dollars to the area,? he said. ?Off-road bikes and kayaks will not pay the bills.? Marion County has a labor surplus and Fort McCoy especially is in need of employment opportunities, he said. Verrando said scientists who are speaking out against the project are ignoring the cycles of rainfall that are a part of Florida?s natural history, he said. Presenters at the meeting pointed to the ongoing drought in Florida as one of the reasons to deny the permit. De la Parte disagrees. ?Variability in rainfall has been the hallmark of Florida?s climate for the past century,? he said. While climate change and sea level rise are a matter of consensus, he said, ?some scientists have predicted an increase in the number and intensity of tropical storms, which would tend to increase rainfall in Florida.? Lawren Moody, a third-generation Ocala resident, supports the project and does not see the water permit as an issue. It ?may sound like a lot, but compared to what industry and agriculture use, it?s not? he said. Verrando determined the water withdrawal amounts to 441 gallons per acre. Mike Register, who spoke on behalf of the water management district said the agency will follow the rules for examining the permit and for reaching a decision on whether or not to grant it. The district is required to give first priority to human consumption of water and second priority to agriculture for human consumption, and so he believes the district has no choice but to grant the permit. Citizens, including Karen Ahlers, who has pledged to fight the permit, said they are willing to protest the permit at every legal opportunity. Register outlined the procedures in detail, including the criteria for denial, the appeal process, and the scientific investigation that will be done to determine if the project will impact water quantity or quality. Ahlers said an appeal of the process must be done within 21 days of determination of the permit request. That?s why, she said, it is important to be prepared.


Lars Andersen: Guide to Florida’s Waters

Lars Andersen

Lars Andersen began writing about nature in the mid 1980s.  His first work, an audiobook titled “North Florida Adventure,” was an educational look at the history and locations of North Florida through the eyes of fictional characters.  Listeners can drive across North Florida and hear about sites as they pass by.

Since then, Andersen, a Florida native, has had a long career as an environmental writer and a nature tour guide.

Andersen began guiding tours in North Florida in the late 1980s.  He conducts river tours on about 60 different waterways, including coastal areas.

“We’ve had a lot of people have transformative experiences when they are out on the river,” Andersen said.  Sometimes after young people have been on a river tour with their parents, they choose nature-related fields of study when they go to college.
[pullquote class=”left”]”We’ve had a lot of people who have transformative experiences when they are out on the river.”[/pullquote]
The 55-year-old nature guide started a formal business about 15 years ago when he opened the Adventure Outpost in High Springs, Fla.

A 2009 National Geographic blurb mentioned Andersen’s tour, including some of his tips on how to approach manatees.

He views his nature-related writings as another means to educate the public about the state’s waterways, as well as some of the problems facing Florida’s water supply.

“Just being a writer really is a great avenue for continuing to learn about these things,” he said.  “I think through my capacity as a writer, I’m helping to contribute in getting this info out to the general public.”

Andersen has written guidebooks, historical accounts of waterways and articles for nature magazines.  Among his works are “Paynes Prairie: The Great Savannah: A History and Guide,” a comprehensive book detailing everything there is to know about the shallow basin in the middle of Florida.

In “Paynes Prairie”, Andersen recalls his childhood fascination with nature, and how his range expanded from his neighborhood. By his teens he had discovered the Prairie.

“I began exploring the Prairie every chance I got, often joined by friends and my brother. . . ,” he wrote.

When asked about his best experience as a nature guide, Andersen told the story of a family; a father, his son, and two grandchildren; he took out to Rainbow River.

“Three generations of people sharing this incredible experience,” Andersen said.

The day went without a hitch. They saw more wildlife than usual, and the family had a great time.

Andersen said that about a month later, the son called him to share some sad news. He told him the grandfather who had arranged the tour had died.

“That trip had been the grandfather’s idea,” Andersen said.  “He wanted to spend one last memorable day with his grandchildren and his son.”

Swimming in Green

Visitors to Ginnie Springs looking out at the Santa Fe River. There is visible algae in the background, though the spring's waters were clear.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Ginnie Springs near the city of High Springs, Fla., is filled with divers, swimmers and people relaxing in the water. For a weekday, there are more people than you’d expect.

Every year, millions of people visit Florida’s springs and rivers, bringing their money with them. An annual report compiled by the Florida Park Service estimates that the 15 most popular of Florida’s state parks bring in combined revenue of over $12 million. In addition, visitors to places such as Ginnie Springs, a private spring, and Ichetucknee State Park have a sizable economic impact on the nearby towns.

In many parts of Florida, natural beauty is an economic asset. At least one person thinks that might change.

Trouble in paradise

Roland Loog, director of Visit Gainesville, said that the waters of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, as well as all the connecting springs, have deteriorated over the last 12 years.

“The water was crystal clear,” said Loog, when describing his childhood experiences with the Ichetucknee River. “Today, the water definitely has a greenish hue.”

He said that the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and all the connected bodies of water have suffered. Algae blooms, decreased water levels, and weaker water pressure are among the problems he listed.

Loog said the town of High Springs has “economic woes” directly related to declining conditions in the springs and the Santa Fe River.

Marc Bryan, of the Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, disagrees with Loog.

“Where else are people going to go? We still have the most beautiful springs,” said Bryan. “It’s not like they’re going to say the High Springs area is terrible and go to Tampa.”

Bryan said High Springs is suffering due to the poor economy nation-wide, not because of worsening conditions in the nearby springs and river.

He doesn’t deny that he is concerned about algae, but he is reluctant to believe there is a long-term problem with decreasing water levels.

“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “We could have this conversation three weeks from now and things could be different.”

During the the six months the dive shop has been open, one employee estimated about 500 customers have come through.

“Have you ever, ever heard one person say that business is bad because of algae or the water level is down?” Bryan asked Marissa Lasso, another employee at the dive shop. “No,” she replied.

Gently down the stream

Jim Woods, CEO of the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs, said that problems with the springs and the river are something he is “extremely concerned” about. Although his business hasn’t seen a decrease in customers, he worries that lower water levels will make canoeing too difficult for his patrons.

Woods said the canoe outpost has had about 5,000 to 7,000 customers over his last business year. An average year, he said, customers number 3,000 to 5,000.

Even though people are still renting his canoes, Woods said that the state of the water has made his cost of business go up.

“We’ve had to adjust,” he said.

Woods’ bookkeeper, Ross Ambrose, said that the water levels have forced the canoe outpost to change where it can put its clients in the water.

“We used to put people in the water right here,” he said. “Now we have to drive them to the next bridge. There’s a cost to our clients.”

In addition, Ambrose mentioned other issues, such as problems navigating canoes in low water and algae making it difficult for divers to see underwater.

Ambrose said he doesn’t think lower water levels, increased algae and more pollutants in the water are temporary problems. Lax regulations and more water use in Jacksonville are to blame, he said.

Ambrose said it is entirely possible that High Springs could eventually end up like White Springs, in Hamilton County, Fla., where phosphate mining disrupted the water flow of the nearby springs. The nearby waters ultimately vanished, causing economic devastation for the town which once featured eloquent destination hotels.

Ecotourism’s secondary business

Aside from canoe rental shops and similar places, other businesses in High Springs rely on tourist cash.

Lucie Regensdorf, owner of the Grady House, a bed and breakfast in High Springs, estimates that 90 percent of her customers are people coming to see the river and springs.

“Ecotourism is huge here,” she said. “Most people come here for the river.”

Her business had about 1,600 customers in 2011. Her best year was 2008, when she had 1,800 customers, she said.

Regensdorf beleives that if the springs and rivers were not in good condition, people would stop coming to High Springs.

“It would hurt my business and a lot of other businesses in town,” she said. “People who think that rivers are important are going to try and protect them, and hopefully they can prevail and get the city commissions and county commissions to do the right things.”

Dan Mijajlovic, owner of the Springs Diner in High Springs, said that during the summer, he gets around 6,000 customers a month. He estimated that nearly half of those patrons are tourists.

Differing viewpoints

Opinions by local business owners on the state of the Santa Fe River and local springs have varied. Loog and Ambrose expressed a pessimistic view, while people like Regensdorf and Bryan said things are good.

A senior employee with Ginnie Springs, who did not wish to be identified, said there is no problem with the water conditions in the area. Ben Harris, former park manager for the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, agrees.

“The water is better than it’s ever been,” he said. Harris said he believes that the springs and rivers all throughout North Florida have been improving.

“The state has made a concerted effort to make sure there is no pollution,” he said.
Harris said lower water levels are caused by a recent drought and fluctuate with the weather.

The big picture

High Springs is just one place that has capitalized on water tourism. There are many other similar towns that benefit from Florida’s scenic rivers and springs.

In its 2011 annual report on the economic impact of springs in the state, the Florida Park Service looked at the direct economic impact of Florida’s springs from 2009 to 2010. It gathered this information by studying how much money tourists spent in nearby areas while visiting the springs.

Blue Springs, near DeLand, Fla., brought nearly $20 million into  surrounding areas.

Ichetucknee Springs, northwest of Fort White, Fla., attracted over $7 million dollars into its local economy.

According to the report, the top 15 most popular springs in Florida had a combined economic impact of $114 million that fiscal year.

Happy campers

Jeff Reeves, a diver originally from Michigan, has no complaints about the water at Ginnie Springs. He has been cave diving in Florida since 1991 but only moved to the state five years ago.

‘The diving brought me here,” he said.

He suits up near a spring known as The Devil’s Eye. Reeves said the water looked just as good as it always has.

“This is one of my favorite spots.”

The Contamination Complication

Mark and Annette Long have lived in Florida for most of their lives and lately they’ve noticed something wrong with the local waterways.

“The water is covered in algae and it doesn’t have a whole lot of flow,” said Mark. “The spring basins aren’t what they used to be.”

Mark is a Florida native and Annette  moved to the state about 30 years ago.  They said they began noticing problems with the water in Florida about 10 years ago.

Alarmed by this observation, the couple who live in Chiefland,  became activists for water issues in their area. They started Save Our Suwannee, which engages in a number of activities from educating the public to lobbying local governments. Of major concern to them is nitrate pollution.

Nitrates (NO−3), or nitric acids, are chemicals commonly found in fertilizers and waste.

Paul Chadik, a University of Florida professor of environmental engineering sciences, said nitrates are a nutrient for the development of algae growth, causing harmful algal blooms. This process is known as cultural eutrophication.

Chadik said that when the algal cells start decaying, the bacteria that catalyze the process absorb large amounts of oxygen from the water.

“Other aquatic life that needs the oxygen can’t get it,” he said. The aquatic ecosystem would be damaged, he said.

A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection study reported that nitrate pollution in both surface and groundwater has increased by a factor of two or three over the last 20 years.

According to the study, about 30 years ago, nitrate levels in Florida’s water were about 0.2 mg/L. Now, the average is about 1.0 mg/L.

The Longs both said they were very concerned over the amount of nitrates finding its way into the water.

Severe environmental degradation can occur at 0.4 mg/L, said Annette, who serves as president of Save Our Suwannee. That’s the general scientific consensus among the experts she has spoken with.

“It causes algae to bloom once it’s exposed to the sun,” she said. The algae overgrowth then “smothers out the healthy aquatic vegetation.”

The maximum contaminant level (MCL), a standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency, allows 10.0 mg/L of nitrates.

Annette also said nitrates pose a threat to the humans drinking the water.

“There are even studies that indicate a level of 1.5 (mg/L) causes bladder cancer.”

Agriculture is one of the major source of the pollutants, the Longs said. Fertilizers commonly used in agriculture contain nitrates, herbicides and phosphorus. He said the rain washes the chemicals into both ground and surface water.

Terry Hansen, an environmental consultant for the environmental protection department, agrees that the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are in poor condition.

“The state has determined both the Suwannee and the Santa Fe are impaired,” he said.
An “impaired” means the water body has been evaluated and found it is not meeting intended use.

The state ranks bodies of water based on a scale of one to five. A one means the water is drinkable, and a five indicates the water is for navigation and industrial use only.

The Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are both class three water bodies, meaning they are for swimming, fishing and recreation. Impaired water bodies exceed the pollution allowed for a class three.

To address this issue, the department has implemented a Best Management Action Plan (BMAP). A BMAP is a collection of methods used to lower pollution.

For instance, the BMAP for the Santa Fe River prescribes a public education campaign about the impact of stormwater and new guidelines for controlling pollution from construction sites, as well as other sources.

Hansen said the complex nature of Florida’s water systems is one reason why pollution is such a major problem. The underground aquifer connects to several bodies of water, meaning nitrates and other nutrients can have a wide reach.

“There is no single place you can implement a system of control,”Hansen said.

A 2010 study, conducted by MACTEC, a private consulting firm, funded by the  Florida Department of Environmental Protection, analyzed sources of nitrate pollution in the Santa Fe River and its springs.

According to the study, water bodies near agriculture contained about 4.0-5.5 mg/L of nitric acids on average, significantly higher than the amount Annette said was dangerous. Water near undeveloped areas contained about 0.1 mg/L.

Another part of the problem, Annette said, is Florida’s lack of enforcing effective environmental policy.

“The state is bowing to industry,” she said, and “dragging its feet” in setting standards for limiting pollution.

The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, made it unlawful to discharge pollutants into the water from a point source (pipes or man-made ditches) without a permit. Mark said far too many of these permits are being issued to industrial businesses such as paper mills.

Cris Costello, a regional organizer for the Florida Chapter of the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, expressed a similar opinion.

“The problem is that FDEP considers polluters their customers,” she said. “They cater to those customers to an incredible extent to such an incredible extent that the environment suffers.”

Florida needs to adopt numeric limits to water pollution.Rather than being proactive, state currently doesn’t take action unless the water is already green and slimy, she said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection finalized a plan in January 2012 to implement a numeric limit, which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Costello said.

The Sierra Club advocates a cheap and easy way to limit nitrate pollution is with local laws regulating fertilizer use, he said.

Manatee County, Fla., is the latest county to adopt regulations on nitrate-based fertilizers. The ordinance prohibits the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus from June 1 through Sept. 30, due to heavy rainfall during these months. In addition, it limits where the fertilizers can be used.

Annette said rules like these should be implemented across the entire state.

The couple remains optimistic that Florida’s water situation will improve.

On the subject of water, Annette said, “It’s the only reason people come to my town.  I hope things will turn around.”