Permit approved for much-debated water withdrawal around Silver Springs

Alan Youngblood/Ocala Star-Banner Concerns about environmental damage to Marion County’s Silver Springs sparked a legal fight over a permit for withdrawing water from the aquifer. The St. Johns River Water Management District approved the permit Tuesday. Concerns about impacts on Silver Springs in Marion County, shown in this 2017 photo, sparked a legal fight over a permit for withdrawing water from the aquifer that the St. Johns River Water Management District approved Tuesday. (Alan Youngblood/Ocala Star-Banner)

The St. Johns River Water Management District’s governing board on Tuesday approved a water-withdrawal permit near Silver Springs in Marion County that conservationists spent a year fighting in legal challenges.

 

The decision lets ranch owner Sleepy Creek Lands pump more from the Floridan aquifer to irrigate grazing lands for cattle that conservationists wouldn’t object to in many places.

But taking the water for Sleepy Creek was different, the permit’s critics argued, because it would be pumped from a spot close to the iconic, but declining, springs that are counted as the state’s largest freshwater spring.

Falling output from the springs has troubled environmental advocates for years, and a fight over increasing water withdrawal around Silver Springs drew attention from people far removed from North Central Florida’s farm fields.

Silver Springs feeds the Silver River, a tributary of the St. Johns, and the area’s clear water and lush vegetation created a hub for tourism through much of the 20th century.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper organization joined a list of advocacy groups to oppose the permit through the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings.

An administrative law judge rejected that challenge in November, however, and recommended the management district’s board approve the permit, as it did Tuesday.

The new permit allows Sleepy Creek to take an additional 1.2 million gallons of water daily, but only through 2023. The company must reduce its water use after that or find some alternative water source, because a study by the management district projects that water demand after that will become too heavy to justify the increased withdrawals.

 

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