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High Springs City Hall meeting room was overflowing as people voiced their opinions on a pending water extraction permit renewal.

HIGH SPRINGS — There is a battle being waged over the future of river resources, renewal of permits and the fate of a proposed water plant by Nestle.

For the past 20 years, the Seven Springs Bottling Plant has held a permit to withdraw water from Ginnie Springs. The permit allowed them to withdraw up to 1.152 million gallons a day from the spring, but as a smaller local plant, their average withdrawal has been a quarter of that amount, peaking at under 270,000 gallons per day for the past four years.

The water and environmental science models of 20 years ago did not foresee the growth of population and agricultural groups in the area and so water usage has become a much more important issue, especially dealing with the commercialization of a resource that is free to all Floridians.

Because of this, permits allowing large use are now being limited to five years and the number of first-time permits has become much more limited. Since the Seven Springs plant had an existing permit, they are able to reapply for a one-time fee of $115.

Water Management District Issues Permits

In January 2019, Nestle Corporation purchased the bottling plant from Seven Springs and began upgrading the facilities in expectation of opening a plant that could produce up to the limit of the permit at 1.152 million gallons a day. To date, they say they have spent $41 million on upgrades and infrastructure. Nestle will also pay an undisclosed amount to Seven Springs for the water itself.

Seven Springs will actually own the permit and Nestle will pay them for the usage. However, they can’t simply start drawing water. There are numerous rules and environmental regulations that have to be met regarding impacts on the health of the river and long-term effects.

The Suwanee River Water Management District (SRWMD) has the authority to make a determination on the permit approval and how much water Nestle can pull from the river. While that sounds definitive, the SRWMD scientist and environmental experts do not make the final decision. They send their recommendation to a six-member Board of Governors who determine whether to grant the permit and for how much water use. Currently the board is comprised of business leaders including three large farmers, a cattle company owner, pawn broker and a construction company president and cattle ranch owner. Only Virginia Johns has experience and education with water management, but that is largely dealing with construction stormwater management.

Majority of Permits for Large-Scale Ag and Livestock Use

The Santa Fe River is currently listed in recovery, both due to lower water levels and more directly due to pollution. There are over 60 springs that discharge into the 75-mile-long Santa Fe and Suwanee river system. Data has shown the that spring water flow rates have dropped continually since the 1930s, and increased agricultural and commercial use, combined with a rapidly increasing population has put a strain on the river system and aquifer. The aquifer provides most of the drinking water for Florida and southern Georgia. If the aquifer level falls too much, sea water can seep in, making the water undrinkable. South Florida has already experienced some of this effect.

While the amount of water requested by Nestle seems significant, the majority of the permits are granted for large-scale agricultural and livestock use. Over 90 percent of the water drawn from the rivers in the SRWMD area is used for agriculture. The large-scale farms also put nitrates into the groundwater, which causes algae and affects water-based wildlife. This is a primary reason that the river is considered endangered.

While the Board of Governors and SRWMD have authority over the permit, local governments have voiced their opinions. Alachua County passed a resolution requesting limiting the withdraw by Nestle to match previous use—not the full amount allowed by the permit.

High Springs Prepares Two Resolutions

On Jan 9, 2020, the High Springs City Commission addressed the issue. While the City has no jurisdiction in the final decision, they felt that it was their responsibility to hold an open meeting to hear the opinions of residents. It turned out to be the most highly attended meeting the Commission has had. So many people showed up that High Springs Police and Fire staff had to limit the number of people in the commission chamber, while the exterior hall area and the steps were filled with people wanting a chance to voice their opinions.

The Commission had prepared two resolutions for consideration. One resolution was to voice their opinion that the permit should not be renewed and the second was an alternative that Nestle should be limited to the previous amount that Seven Springs pumped out and not the maximum 1.152 million gallons per day allowed by the permit.

Opponents Cite Strained River System and Pollution

The meeting lasted more than two hours with numerous speakers on both sides of the debate. Data, both in support and opposition to the proposed Nestle plant, was presented along with residents’ personal opinions. Many of the opponents of the plant cite the cumulative effect of granting more permits to a river system that is already feeling the strains of overuse and pollution. They cited that the 1.52 million gallons pulled each day would amount to 2.1 billion gallons over five years.

They expressed concerns about the water plant's effect on the river's health, wildlife and how that would affect eco-tourism, which is important to the local economy. They also expressed concerns on a fourfold increase in traffic on Poe Springs Road. There were also concerns about additional environmental pollution by creating 2 billion more plastic bottles per year. There are already over 50 billion bottles discarded per year. Other speakers cited the commercialization and profit from an outside corporation for a resource that was free to all Floridians.

Proponents Cite Water Resource Management and Jobs

Proponents of the plant stressed that Nestle has been environmentally conscious about their commercial water plants and has been one of the leaders in water resource management. They said that it is not in Nestle's interest to drain the water or pollute it since that would kill their very product they are producing. Several speakers pointed to the fact that even at the maximum draw of 1.152 million a day, it adds up to less than one-half of one-percent of the water drawn from the river and one one-hundredth of the amount produced by the river. They also cited that most of the damage to the river comes from agriculture and development, both of which have major money and legal teams that locals would have trouble litigating against. They said that Nestle would help fight this since it would again affect their operations by damaging the river and aquifer. They also stated that they bring jobs and taxes into the local economy.

City Declines to Approve Resolutions, Sends Letter

In the end, the High Springs City Commission did not approve either resolution but does plan to send a “strongly worded” letter to the SRWMD suggesting that they revise the permit to limit water withdrawal to the previously used amount. While they have no jurisdiction in the decision, the Commission sought the middle ground acknowledging the arguments from both sides.

As of Jan. 14, the SRWMD had received the last of the required Requested Additional Information (RAI) forms from Nestle and Seven Springs and now has 90 days to review it and forward their decision to the Governing Board.

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NEWBERRY — The City of Newberry’s utility services were recently featured in “Relay” magazine’s special winter 2019 issue, which recognized the best utility service providers in the state. Relay is a Florida electric industry trade journal published by the Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA). The full-page article is titled, “Newberry: Where Value and Service Meet.”

Newberry is one of five cities featured in the special section titled “Small Utility: Big Community Commitment.”

Ft. Pierce, the Keys, New Smyrna Beach and Homestead were the other four utilities also featured. However, Newberry is the smallest of those utilities with a customer base of 2,100 and a team of only 10 employees.

One of the ways Newberry has kept their utility prices low is by not owning their own electricity plant. Instead, the City purchases power through a joint ownership in the FMEA, as well as through an interest in the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant.

In addition, City Commissioners have authorized the installation of an automatic metering infrastructure (AMI) system to improve reading accuracy and streamline the meter reading process. In the “Relay” article, City of Newberry Electric Utility Customer Service Supervisor Tammy Snyder said, “The City recently signed a contract to purchase more than 10 percent of their load from solar power, so that all city facilities will be powered by renewable energy.”

Another way in which Newberry keeps costs low is by cross-training employees from different departments to step in when emergencies arise. A water leak may bring in employees from three different departments to rectify the issue in the most efficient manner.

Another feature that helps build strong brand loyalty is that all decisions are made with oversight by the public. Although staff members review an issue thoroughly before it is brought before the City Commission for decisions, public hearings and open discussions give citizens the ability to weigh in prior to a vote by commissioners.

According to Snyder, the fact that most employees live in the city in which they work helps to keep them in touch with the public and to look out for the best interests of the citizens.

“I am excited to share with you that Newberry was recently featured in “Relay” magazine for our outstanding value and customer service,” said City Manager Mike New. “We were recognized in this special issue along with electric industry giants like Tallahassee (voted number one utility in the nation a few years ago), Lakeland Electric and Orlando Utilities Commission. Newberry is the sole utility identified in the publication that serves less than 20,000 customers, we serve 2,000ish,” he said.

Interested person may access the web version of Relay magazine for further information.

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L-R: 2019 Sky Valor Award Recipient, Newberry Firefighter Kristi Langston and Newberry Fire Chief Ben Buckner./PHOTO by C.M. WALKER/Alachua County Today

NEWBERRY — Newberry Fire Chief Ben Buckner addressed the Newberry City Commission and a packed audience on Dec. 9 to tell them that one of the City’s own fire fighters, Kristi Langston, was the recipient of a 2019 Sky Valor Award for her heroic work in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

“On the afternoon of Jan. 3, firefighter Kristi Langston and Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) Rescue Lieutenant Travis Chaney responded to a serious multi-vehicle accident on I-75. When they arrived, they found a horrific scene with multiple vehicles involved, including two semi-tractor trailers, with severe damage and several vehicles on fire. Additionally, patients were strewn over the large scene, with many having been ejected and now lying in the roadway,” he said.

“Rescue Lieutenant Chaney sized up the scene, took command, and ordered several more units to be dispatched.”

The roadway was blocked by a fully-involved tractor-trailer fire, which had been ignited after approximately 50 gallons of diesel fuel spilled onto the highway. Rescue units coming from the north were cut off from the patients needing treatment. Many more fire trucks and ambulances were coming from the south, but those units were delayed due to the location of the accident and traffic flow.

Firefighter Langston and Chaney spent the next several minutes triaging and treating patients involved in this mass casualty situation. “The scene was chaotic, to say the least,” Buckner said. As additional units arrived, Langston and Chaney prioritized patients for immediate transport to the hospital, while large fires and explosions erupted in their immediate area. “Once sufficient responders arrived at the scene, Langston and her partner packaged a critical pediatric patient into their unit and transported the patient to the hospital as a trauma alert,” said Buckner.

Overall that day, three passenger vehicles and two tractor trailers were involved in the accident with 14 total patients. In the end, there were seven fatalities, including five children from Louisiana who were traveling to Walt Disney World in a church van with seven more passengers from the same church.

“With the severe stresses and emotion of that environment, firefighter Langston and Rescue Lieutenant Chaney remained calm and effective, helping to save the lives of many of the patients,” Buckner said.

Langston has served as a fire fighter with the City of Newberry since Oct. 1, 2005. Following Buckner’s description of Langston’s service to those in need in the aftermath of the crash, Mayor Marlowe mentioned that Kristi was part of a special training program.

Buckner explained that within the past week, “Kristi received notification that she passed her National Registry for Paramedic training, which involves a year-long commitment along with very intensive EMS medical training.”

The Sky Valor Awards for 2019 were presented on Oct. 7 at the College of Central Florida, Ocala.

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HAWTHORNE — A $13.5 million project that originally started on Hawthorne Road (State Road 20) in Alachua County is now continuing into Putnam County. The last segment of widening improvements has now begun and will run from the Alachua County line 12 miles to Southwest 56th Avenue in Putnam County, according to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). The last part of this project is estimated to cost $49 million.

The Alachua County improvements began in summer 2017 and were completed approximately one year ago. Both roadway improvement projects include widening State Road 20 from a two-lane roadway to a four-lane urban roadway with curbs, gutters, grassed medians, bicycle lanes, a five-foot sidewalk on the north side, a 10-foot multi-use path on the south side of the roadway and a five-span bridge at Fowlers Prairie.

Anderson Columbia Co. Inc is estimated to complete the current Putnam County portion of the $49 million widening improvements by late 2022, weather and unforeseen circumstances permitting.

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Photo special to Alachua County Today

MELROSE – The Melrose Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) is rolling out a new piece of equipment to help keep the community safe. In the past several months there have been several water-emergencies on Lake Santa Fe and the surrounding waterways. MVFD members wanted to increase their rescue capabilities on the water.

In an effort to address a major public safety disparity faced by the citizens of Melrose, this year MVFD undertook a major project to develop a special operations team with advanced water rescue capabilities. Members of the department spent over 200 combined hours training and working to bring a fully functional, rapid response rescue boat to the town of Melrose. This marks the first time that this area has had a dedicated, professionally trained group of firefighters ready to respond to water emergencies. This effort has been funded entirely by the donations of local businesses and MVFD.

"We have a very active community and they actually wanted to start a program themselves. But when we came up and we talked to them about this, they felt more than welcome to help us get to our goal,” said Melrose Fire Department spokesperson, Joshua Florence. “So, it's not just the fire department doing this. It's actually the whole community coming together as a whole to make the program to essentially help keep people safe on the water."

The Marine Unit is trained to respond to medical emergencies and vehicle crashes, but will not handle towing.

The boat, referred to by its call-sign “Marine 249,” is an AVON SR-4, previously serving the U.S. Army Vessel New Orleans. The two 55-horsepower Evinrude motors are multi-fuel and submersible, having previously served the United States Air Force's 308th Rescue Squadron. These two units together were acquired through the Florida Forest Service via the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) and Firefighter Programs (FFP). The trailer owned by MVFD and the complete rig towed by one of the MVFD vehicles can be on the water in a short timeframe to assist in times of maritime emergencies.

Through many hours of work, MVFD members were able to get both motors in working condition, repair and replace safety components of the inflatable boat, add navigation lights, warning lights, and add life-saving equipment to make the boat ready to respond to emergencies in Melrose and the surrounding areas.

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L-R: Florida GFWC President-Elect Dianne Forester, GFWC New Century Woman's Club Parliamentarian Lillian Jenkins, Historian Vickie Cox, Assistant Treasurer Shirley Macrides, Treasurer Barbara Webster, Reording Secretary Audry Copenhagen, orresponding Secretary Joyce Hallman, Second Vice President Bonnie Josey, First Vice President Patti Lamneck and President Fallier Milner.

HIGH SPRINGS – Looking forward for the next several years, the GFWC Woman’s Club in High Springs has new officers on board. During the Dec. 5 GFWC Woman’s Club Annual Meeting held in High Springs, Florida State President-Elect Dianne Foerster attended and installed the 2020-2022 GFWC High Springs New Century Woman’s Club’s Executive Board of Directors.

Woman’s Club members constitute the largest portion of GFWC Florida’s membership with over 9,000 members in over 230 clubs. The purpose of the GFWC Woman’s Club is to promote and provide civic, educational and charitable activities. Club members are dedicated to community improvement through volunteer service.

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Trees lining Old Bellamy Road provide a dense canopy over the histori highway that runs through Alachua. PHOTO by RAY CARSON/Alachua County Today

ALACHUA – The oldest existing road in America runs through Alachua County. While some of the road has disappeared due to development or abandonment, sections still exist as the Old Bellamy Road in Alachua. It is named after John Bellamy, the contractor and Florida plantation owner who built it in 1825 through 1826. But the history of the road goes back centuries earlier.

North Florida is intersected with several rivers, the Suwannee, Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers divide North Florida, making long distance land travel difficult. At O’leno State Park, the Santa Fe river suddenly goes underground for three miles before re-emerging at River Rise State Park. This natural bridge has provided a way of crossing the Santa Fe since prehistoric times. Since it allowed early travelers to walk across the river on dry land, many of the Indian trails in the region converged to a single pathway across the bridge.

“El Camino Real” - The Royal Road

When Spanish explorers and missionaries penetrated into the interior of Florida during the 1500s and 1600s, they too used the trail across the natural bridge. It became part of the historic old Mission Road, which linked St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast with the numerous Spanish missions that existed around the present-day site of Tallahassee in the west panhandle area and the interior of North Florida. The route became known as “el Camino Real,” the Royal Road.

In the latter part of the 17th century, the Spanish tried, with limited success, to improve the Royal Road to allow use by ox carts, but it remained a simple dirt trail through the rugged interior of the state. The road saw heavy use throughout the mission period, but fell into disuse in 1702-1704 when English raiders led allied Indian warriors into Florida. The missions were destroyed and thousands of Apalachee, Timucua and other Indians were killed or carried away into slavery.

Spain Cedes Florida to U.S.

Despite British raids, Spain still owned Florida for another100 years. After the United States gained territory from the British in The Revolutionary War, large numbers of settlers arrived in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. Spanish Florida had a smaller Spanish population by this time and became a refuge for runaway slaves and Seminole Indian raiders, which the Spanish used for a defensive network. But Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could not afford to send settlers or troops, so the Spanish government decided in 1819 to cede the territory to the United States in exchange for settling the boundary dispute in Spanish Texas.

American settlers began establishing settlements and forts in North Florida. Travel and roads were limited in the interior, so in 1824 Congress authorized the creation of a road using the old Spanish Royal Road. They appropriated the money for the project and placed the work under the supervision of U.S. Army Captain Daniel Burch, the officer assigned to direct the project. Captain Burch surveyed the route, leaving Pensacola in October 1823. His unit traveled 445 miles and arrived in St. Augustine a month later. Burch saw the vastness of the project and difficulties of the terrain, so he decided to contract out the eastern half of the road from Tallahassee to St. Augustine.

John Bellamy Wins Bid

On Dec. 18, 1824, Florida plantation owner John Bellamy entered a bid to build the section of the new road between the St. John’s River near St. Augustine and the Ochlockonee River near the new territorial capital of Tallahassee. He could complete the project, he believed, for $13,500. The bid was accepted and in early 1825 work began on laying out, clearing and building the road.

The congressional act had stated that the road was to be 25 feet wide to allow two wagons to pass each other, but the contract with Bellamy required that the road only be 16 feet wide. Tree stumps were to cut as close to the ground as possible, in order to clear a wagon’s axles. Travelers quickly complained that the road was not always wide enough to let two wagons pass, that the bridges were inadequate, and that some stumps, “stump knockers,” were too tall, jolting passengers and breaking axles. The road became known as Stump Knocker Road.

Bellamy used his plantation slaves and contract workers to clear the road, but cutting a dirt road through North Florida in the summer presented numerous challenges. Bellamy’s slaves worked through difficult conditions with heat and humidity, insects and the torrential afternoon rains that turned the sandy soil into mud. Although the western portion of the road had to use a ferry to cross the Aucilla River, the planned route in Central Florida took advantage of the three-mile stretch where the Santa Fe River disappeared underground, near present day O’Leno State Park.

Completed in 1826; Little used by 1890s

By May 1826, “Bellamy’s Road” was completed and became the main route for travel between Tallahassee and Saint Augustine prior to the Civil War. By the 1860s, Florida’s population and settlements had grown and other routes, as well as train travel, began to make Bellamy Road less traveled, and by the 1890s it was no longer being used except by local residents. Over the next century it fell into disrepair and portions disappeared as nature reclaimed the land.

But portions of Old Bellamy Road still exist today, with much of it either running through rural residential neighborhoods or buried under newer asphalt roads. In eastern Alachua County, the road follows the Old Mission Trail on the south end of Lake Santa Fe and part of State Road 26 in Melrose. Another easily accessible remnant is part of the O’Leno State Park and the overland pass of the Santa Fe River. From there, the road passes out of Alachua County toward Tallahassee. For a trip through the early history of Florida, visitors can still drive a section of the original road as they make their way to the Bellamy Road Interpretive Trail at River Rise Preserve State Park just north of High Springs. Open daily, the trail follows the trace of the old road and includes panels detailing its history. To reach the trail, travel from High Springs on U.S 41/U.S. 441 North for 5.6 miles then turn right on Old Bellamy Road SE. Follow it to the end and the trail parking area will be on the left.

The road may now be a quiet tree lined street or walking trail, but its impact on Florida’s history was large even though it is unknown to most people. It is a centuries old trip through time.

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