Controversial Niagara water request gets OK
Orlando Sentinel, 2014-02-12
Feb. 12--PALATKA -- Despite an outpouring of impassioned opposition, Niagara Bottling LLC was granted state permission Tuesday to double its pumping from the Floridan Aquifer to nearly a million gallons a day.
Residents from as far as Orlando, Jacksonville and several Central Florida counties urged the St. Johns River Water Management District not to grant Niagara's controversial request to increase pumping at its plant in Groveland.
They spoke of fears about shriveling springs and lakes, sinkholes and shrinking supplies of drinking water. They also expressed outrage that a private company from California would be allowed to double its withdrawals from the aquifer while Central Floridians are under mandatory lawn-watering restrictions because of fears that population growth will overwhelm the aquifer.
"There are hundreds of people who would have made this trip but for the distance and it being in the middle of the workday," said Clay Townsend, a Morgan & Morgan lawyer representing another of the firm's lawyers who lives near the Niagara plant.
The district's headquarters in Palatka is nearly 110 miles from downtown Orlando and 90 miles from Groveland. Nobody spoke in support of Niagara, other than its hired representative, while 29 people urged the water-agency's board to deny the increase.
Niagara's lawyer, Ed de la Parte, who has worked for many utilities and specializes in water-fight lawsuits, said it wouldn't be fair to deny the permit when more than a dozen other beverage plants operate in the St. Johns River Water Management District.
He said the proposed increase would not harm the environment, according to the company's and the district's analysis.
"It's not about emotion," de la Parte said. "We have to deal with the best scientific information."
Key to Niagara's increase is the company's agreement to dig a deeper well that reaches into the lower section of the Floridan Aquifer. According to computer predictions, pumping from that depth will lessen potential harm to wetlands, lakes and springs.
The water district's staff said the permit will require Niagara to prove that pumping from a deeper well is less damaging to the aquifer and the region's environment.
The levels of many lakes in south Lake County have declined severely in recent years, fueling further resentment toward Niagara.
Jamie Hanja said district board members should consider the "tears of Realtors" who can't sell waterfront homes because there is no water.
Of eight board members, two voted against the increase: Maryam Ghyabi of Ormond Beach and Douglas Burnett of St. Augustine, who questioned granting a permit that lasts 20 years.
The two board members from Central Florida voting for the increase were John Miklos and Chuck Drake of Orlando.
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