By Erika Webb
Nearly half a million gallons of water is not enough for one bottled water distributor.
California-based Niagra is asking the St. Johns River Water Management District for nearly twice that much.
The district will consider modification of a Consumptive Use Permit for Niagra Bottling in Lake County at the governing board's public meeting in Palatka Feb. 11.
On Sept. 13, Niagra applied to the district to renew and modify its CUP, requesting to increase its average daily withdrawal from the Floridan aquifer from 484,000 to 910,000 gallons per day.
"During the application process, Niagra Bottling changed its application to request that the bulk of its withdrawal for its bottled water operation come from the Lower Floridan aquifer by 2016," the district reported. "By utilizing the Lower Floridan aquifer, and reducing its Upper Floridan withdrawal, the request is consistent with one of the strategies being developed in the Central Florida Water Initiative."
The Floridan aquifer system is one of the most productive aquifers in the world, underlying an area of about 100,000 square miles in southern Alabama, southeastern Georgia, southern South Carolina, and all of Florida.
In most places, the system can be divided into the Upper and Lower Floridan aquifers, separated by a less-permeable confining unit.
"The Upper Floridan is highly permeable in most places and yields sufficient water supplies for most purposes, and there is no need to drill into the deeper Lower Floridan aquifer," according to the University of Georgia's Summit to the Sea Program website.
A confining unit -- also referred to as semi-confining where it allows water to more easily leak through -- separates the Upper and Lower aquifers. Its consistency changes with location. Clay, fine-grained limestone and porous dolomite, pocketed with anhydrite, comprise the middle unit. Wherever it is present, ground water movement between the Upper and Lower aquifers is restricted.
One of two highly permeable zones within the Lower Floridan is a partly cavernous zone in northeastern Florida and southeastern coastal Georgia, called the Fernandina permeable zone, according to UGA's website.
"This zone is the source of a considerable volume of fresh to brackish water that moves upward through the middle semi-confining unit and ultimately reaches the Upper Floridan aquifer," the website reported.
Hank Largin, public communications coordinator for the district, said while pumping from the Lower Floridan isn't unheard of, it's not common.
"It does cost more, because you're digging lower and since the water is not as pure it requires more treatment," Mr. Largin said.
The semi-confining unit and the "productive nature" of the Lower Floridan will ensure less environmental impact than currently permitted withdrawal from the Upper Floridan, the district reported.
"District staff do not anticipate an adverse impact to surface waters of wetlands as a result of this proposed withdrawal," the district reported on its website. "Groundwater modeling simulations of the proposed withdrawals indicate a decrease in drawdown within areas that could be potentially impacted when compared to the currently permitted withdrawals of 484,000 gpd from the Upper Floridan aquifer."
Through its existing CUP, Niagra is authorized to use water to manufacture plastic water bottles and to purify groundwater for bottled drinking water using a reverse osmosis process at its facility northwest of Groveland, according to the district.
The original permit was issued after a nearly two-year evaluation and review, which included a hearing before an administrative law judge who recommended permit issuance.
Permission raised hackles throughout the district. Homeowners restricted to certain days and times for lawn watering were appalled at what they saw as free-water-for-profit going to quench the thirst of Californians.
The idea of doubling the amount withdrawn has filled inboxes and made phones ring.
Mr. Largin responds to numerous emails and phone calls from frustrated Floridians.
"Bottled water is something that people feel passionate about to begin with," Mr. Largin said in a phone interview. "Many are opposed to the idea of bottling water."
But, Mr. Largin explained, plenty of water is used in other beverage containing processes.
"In their eyes it's not the same as the beer company, soft drink company, juice company -- also using water," he said.
Another common lamentation is bottled water companies, like Niagra, pump the water free of charge and sell it.
"That's what your utility does," Mr. Largin said. "They spend money on infrastructure but they pump water out of the ground and sell it to you."
All manufacturers, he said, aim to make a product for the smallest amount of money possible and sell it for the highest.
"When you're talking about over a billion gallons withdrawn in a day, it is the proverbial drop in the bucket," he said.
Niagra is one of seven bottled water operations permitted in the 18-county district.
"Those seven bottled water companies are allocated a combined total of 2.055 million gallons a day, which is less than (three-tenths) of 1 percent of the water used in the District on a daily basis," according to the SJRWMD.
Mr. Largin said Niagra is not near the top of the consumption heap.
"(Though) 910,000 gallons sounds like a great amount of water, if they get 910,000 a day, if the permit is approved, and it remains to be seen if it will be (Niagra's) will be the 233rd largest permit in the district," he said, "meaning that there are 232 larger water users in our district."
According to the district, if approved, the permit will ensure:
Niagra's withdrawals from the Upper Floridan will not exceed 484,000 gpd in 2014 and 2015
From 2016-2023, withdrawals from the Upper Floridan will be reduced to not more than 334,000 gpd
Niagra will be permitted to withdraw 910,000 gpd from the Lower Floridan from 2016 through 2034 with total withdrawal from the Upper and Lower Floridan not to exceed 910,000 gpd
If Niagra does not shift all of its groundwater withdrawals to the Lower Floridan by Jan. 14, 2024, its permitted allocation will be zero for both the Upper and Lower Floridan.
Board members will review the staff's report and recommendation as well as letters and emails from the public before making a decision on whether or not to issue the permit, according to the district. Members of the public also will have an opportunity to speak at the meeting.
"Our board has said over and over through the years, they're very interested in what the public has to say," Mr. Largin said.