A local ranch’s hunt for water, and the public’s fight to keep it in the springs

Central Florida’s springs have been drying up for decades. In December of last year, however, new waves were made when Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach submitted an application to the St. John’s Water Management District (SJWMD, the District) for a Consumptive Use Permit (CUP) allowing him to pump 13.267 million gallons per day (mgd). These 13 mgd were requested on top of the property’s existing CUP for 0.548 mgd, which was approved for the property’s previous use for sod irrigation.

The water from the new CUP would be used to irrigate the 61,000 square foot Adena Springs Ranch in Fort McCoy, Marion County, as well as provide drinking water for the grass-fed cattle raised there, 150 of which will be slated for slaughtered two days a week at a slaughterhouse on the property.

Shortly after the CUP was submitted, several news reports were published, illustrating the magnitude of these daily withdrawals by comparing the quantity to that pumped daily for the entire city of Ocala (12.85 mgd). Prior to preliminary meetings with the District, Stronach intended to apply for 27 mgd.

Alarmed and organized, residents, well owners and environmentalists in Marion and Alachua Counties have sustained their opposition campaign since first word of the ranch’s CUP.
Together they fought the permit from state advisory board meetings to public hearings, writing editorials to holding street-side protests.

Given the already visible affect the drought and over-pumping of the aquifer have had on above and below ground water levels, residents maintain approving the permit is irresponsible on the part of the District. At a recent public meeting about the CUP, Adena environmental scientist William Dunn was asked how the Adena science team had determined there would not be damage to Orange Lake, considering it was already dry. His response was that they did not consider current hydrological conditions when they did their calculations.

In fact, the permit review process ordered a scientific study to determine the minimum flows and levels of (MFLs) one of the water bodies, Silver Springs, that the approved permit would impact. This study, however, will not be completed until 2013. The MFLs serve as a limit for district-wide water withdrawals, beyond which would bear significant negative impacts on all the water levels.

H. T. Odum Florida Spring Institute Director Bob Knight, an aquatic and wetland scientist, has determined the sustainable volume of water withdrawal to be 70 gallons per day (gpd) per acre, to ensure the flows in the springs do not drop below 10% of their current average flows.

He estimated that the District has approved CUPs for 75-90% of the spring’s watershed flows.

Additionally, there are a number of hidden costs, such as remediation of impaired waters, which are not being discussed with the public, despite the permitting process in Florida hinging on any given CPU’s benefit to the public.

Two women at the forefront of the opposition, Judy Etlzer and Pat Hawk, couldn’t agree more with Knight’s sentiments. On Sept. 11, Pat attended one of the SJWMD meetings covering the Silver Springs spring shed. She too walked away questioning the “science” behind the discussions. As Pat points out, if residents are restricted to watering their lawns from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., how does the District justify allowing Adena Ranch to use huge irrigation sprinklers that would run for a consistent 24 hours?

Pat has heard of several local wells that have dried up, including two across from the Adena Springs Ranch itself. Two by Orange Lake, one on Hwy. 318 in the Irvine-Orange Lake area, and another owned by Bruce Seaman, a local minister, have also run dry.

Some residents like Pat and Judy have been forced to drill new and deeper wells as a result. In 2001, Pat had to drill a new well due increased development in her area and recently, Judy, who lives on Orange Lake, has had to drill down another 130 feet to reach her water.

12 years ago, Pat had to pay $4,000 out-of-pocket to replace her well. In a meeting with The Activist Coalition, a conglomeration of regional activists, Pat asked rhetorically, if Stronach pumps the springs dry making his financial living, who would pay for her to have yet another well drilled so that she could have potable water for simply living? Would Stronach? The District? Or would she pay out-of-pocket again? Where was the benefit to her and her neighbors to approve this CUP application?

Adena Springs Ranch has projected it will create approximately 150 jobs. 150 at what cost? In today’s market, jobs are scarce, but so is water.

The District has again come under attack by citizens and the media who are skeptical of the District’s priorities. They’re also scrutinizing the District for not being entirely transparent in their assessments and public reports, particularly those regarding hidden costs, such as remediation of impaired waters.

At an Aug. 23 meeting, Adena Springs Ranch announced it would reduce its water demand from approximately 13 mgd to 5.3 mgd — millions of gallons less, but still only a small victory for those fought to save the springs throughout summer.

It’s hard to put the numbers thrown around in these debates into context or scope. Though the CUP reduction seems large (approximately 7.3 mpd), when those numbers are multiplied out, the effect on water flows is much more significant.

In an editorial published on July 28 in the Gainesville Sun, Knight noted that the predicted 0.1 foot drop in water levels at Silver Springs actually translates into a 5 mgd reduction in average flows. That is more water than has ever been recorded flowing at the nearby Green Cove Springs and is equivalent to 4% of the average flows of Silver Springs in drought conditions. This figure also coincides with the ranch’s new CUP request, meaning that approving the application for this amount, even though much lower than the original request, could still negatively impact the water levels and flows in the drought-stricken future.

Mark Roberts, the Adena Springs Ranch manager, announced the reduction would be made possible by raising the cattle elsewhere for the majority of their lives and then bringing them to the ranch only 6 months prior to slaughter, reducing the water consumption in that specific localized area of the watershed.  Where the cattle would be taken was not definitive, and no new CUP had been applied for pertaining to the new areas that would experience the additional, though decentralized, pumping. The ranch’s PR Director, Honey Rand, also addressed concerns regarding nutrient loadings to the springs from manure and fertilization, claiming that Adena intended to employ best management practices, though the exact details on the designs were also not available.

The future of water in Florida is uncertain, and that is something the activists and the District agree on. The District had sent the Adena staff a Request for Additional Information (RAI) the same month the CUP application was submitted. The Ranch applied for an extension on the RAI deadline and the District granted the request in April, extending the deadline until late August. The Ranch applied for another extension in August, which again was granted by the District. Adena Springs Ranch now has until Nov. 24, 2012 to respond to the District’s RAI. Until then, both sides are standing their ground in anticipation of an approval? A rejection? Or perhaps, another extension.

The Ranch does have a website that describes its plans as yet, found at http://www.adenaspringsranch.com/project-overview/. By the printing of this article, the website spearheaded by springs activists called “Water Well Justice” should also be up and running, illustrating their struggle. And Bob Knight’s Springs Institute remains a wealth of information, including a 50 year study on Silver Springs, found at http://floridaspringsinstitute.org/.