Two things Florida is known for are its strawberries and springs. People come from around the world to tube down Ginnie Springs or to explore caverns carved out by the underground rivers beneath our feet. Every year, locals look forward to the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. It makes Florida an attractive place to live and visit.

Unfortunately, at the start of 2010, a severe freeze swept over the state, threatening Florida’s crops. Farmers fought for their right to use water in excess of regulated limits so they could spray their crops and protect them. The Southwest Florida Water Management District allowed strawberry farmers in Plant City to pump an extra 1 billion gallons of groundwater from the Floridan Aquifer each day for 11 days. As a result of the rapid water draw-down, 760 residential wells went dry and 140 sinkholes were created.

A few months later, all the crops became ready to harvest and hit the market at once. Strawberry prices plummeted. Farmers chose to destroy the recently saved crops instead of harvesting them at a monetary loss.

As clean supplies of potable water dwindle across the globe, the debate over who owns the water and has rights to it has intensified.

The United Nations claims that water is fundamental to life and a precondition for the realization of human rights, yet more than 800 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion have no access to basic sanitation and an average 1.5 million children under the age of five die every year from waterborne diseases.

Even in developed countries, water is becoming scarce. The St. John’s River Water Management District currently estimates that by the year 2030, the Northeastern part of Florida will need an extra 91 million gallons of water per day than can feasibly be pumped from groundwater sources without damaging the environment.

To make matters worse, the bottled water industry has been purchasing rights to extract water from spring and underground sources across the country for the last 20 years. By 2009, 22 bottling companies had established operations along Florida’s waterways, pumping anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million gallons per day. Bottle and brand label producers in the area utilize even more fresh water for their operations. In fact, producing the average bottle of water takes about five times the amount of water contained in the bottle.

Bottled water reports yearly profits of 50% to 200%, which are understandably high. The industry is able to buy cheap extraction permits from local water management districts and only needs to comply with voluntary water treatment standards, which lowers their capital costs.

In 2005 and 2009, The Florida Senate and Governor Charlie Crist, respectively, proposed a state extraction tax on bottling companies, which would have netted about $56 million a year in state revenues. Industry representatives argued that they were being singled out and proposed a state sales tax instead. However, a large portion of the water bottled in Florida is shipped and sold outside the state’s borders, including the Dasani water that Coca Cola bottles nearby from Ginnie Springs. The extraction tax law never passed.

Water is a limited resource. Its proper allocation needs to be enforced or Florida’s world-renowned springs will run dry.

In future editions of The Fine Print, the effects of lax water protection laws, rapid urbanization and the trend to buy bottled water will be explored. Claims from the industry, as well as community activist groups, will be analyzed. Hold your breath.