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Lake County Residents Fear Bottling Plant Could Lower Lake Levels

June 15, 2008

David Leverett fondly recalls the years when he could stand on his dock and peer down into the clear water of Lake Desire.

But today the old wooden dock is surrounded by sand. Years of mostly dry weather and other factors have dropped the lake by 7 feet, and Leverett worries about what might happen in the future.

He lives about a mile from Lake County’s Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park, where Niagara Bottling LLC is busily setting up a new plant to package bottled water.

The company has requested a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District to pull 177 million gallons of fresh water out of the ground every year.

Doing so will affect lakes, according to a report submitted by Niagara to district officials. The report estimates that Niagara’s targeted water withdrawal could lower some lakes in that part of south Lake County by more than an inch.

It also found that other withdrawals permitted by the district could drop some lakes by up to a foot or more.

The water withdrawal is proposed at a critical time when the district says the underground Floridan Aquifer — a vital source of drinking water throughout most of the state — soon will not be able to keep up with increasing development demands.

“It is heartbreaking to watch something so environmentally beautiful to be raped the way it is,” Leverett said about area lakes. “It’s not just the drought doing it — we have a lot of people pumping out of ground.”

Leverett said he opposes Niagara’s plans, and he contacted the St. Johns and other agencies about his concerns for lakes.

The water management district has received hundreds of e-mails and letters from residents and governments opposed to Niagara as well as from people who support the project.

District staff has less than 30 days to make a recommendation on Niagara’s water-permit request or to request more information from the company. The issue could go before the St. Johns governing board as early as August.

Meanwhile, Niagara continues to assemble bottling equipment inside a $15 million, 291,000-square-foot building formerly used by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

In response to questions from the St. Johns district, Niagara recently submitted a study of potential surface-water effects that could be caused by the company’s proposed groundwater withdrawal.

The study also included possible surface-water effects from other groundwater permits in the region.

The report looked at 58 water bodies surrounding the bottled-water plant — 17 could drop by a tenth of a foot, or about 1.2 inches, because of Niagara’s proposed withdrawal, according to estimates.

Among those affected could be Church Lake, Lake Spencer, Indianhouse Lake and others.

The report considered the effects minimal: “Because of their natural adaptation to large fluctuations in water level and the relatively small magnitude of the projected drawdown, none of the 58 water bodies occurring within the 0.1 foot or .2 foot drawdown contour were deemed to be at risk of ecological harm as a result of the proposed withdrawal.”

Cumulative impacts from all groundwater permits in the area could lower lakes and other water bodies by as much as a foot or more. St. Johns officials say they can permit groundwater withdrawals that affect lakes and wetlands as long as the effects do not cause significant harm.

“We’re not saying that we’re not causing an impact to wetlands, but we’re not causing harm,” said Marc Minno, a supervising regulatory scientist with the St. Johns district.

Minno said a district representative recently visited the area and determined that despite the extreme water-level fluctuations, mostly caused by the weather, the lakes would not be significantly hurt by Niagara’s requested water use.

Leverett said any further drop in lake levels is too much.

County Commissioner Elaine Renick said she worries about how far the lakes should drop before the district decides they have been significantly harmed.

“Their acceptable level of harm and ours is so different,” Renick said. “It is very disconcerting.”

Robert Sargent can be reached at rsargent@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5909.

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