ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida gives its water away for free to residents and companies who then bottle it and sell it to the highest bidder.
Taxpayers are then left to foot the bill to replace it.
Channel 9’s investigative reporter Christopher Heath discovered when the springs run dry, taxpayers fork over millions to repair the damage.
“We made an investment in the well because we wanted to make our landscaping nice,” said Don Phillips, a resident in Lake County.
Phillips has a direct source for inexpensive water, a backyard well.
“A lot of us put wells in when the water started going up,” Phillips said.
Florida’s water is a public resource by law, meaning it exists for residents to use it for free.
Private companies and private individuals get Florida’s free water and sell it for a profit.
Dr. Bob Knight is the executive director of the Florida Springs Institute.
Over the years, Knight's watched as companies from Nestle to Niagara have tapped into the water supply to turn a profit.
“That’s a good deal if you can get it. That’s a very good deal but it’s a bad deal for the people of Florida,” Knight said. “Even Silver Springs, Florida’s first tourist attraction is not immune from pumping, just feet from where I’m standing, water is pumped out. The water then travels about a quarter-mile to this tower where the trucks line up to take the water away.”
“We treat it like it’s infinite, and it’s not. It’s a fixed amount that we get each year,” Knight said.
When the springs are taxed from the withdrawals, taxpayers will be responsible.
In 2018, the Legislature set aside $50 million for springs restoration
“The water bottling companies are profiting off the free water that the public is giving them,” Knight said.
In the northeast part of Central Florida, covered by the Saint John's river water management district, five companies have permits totaling 800 million gallons a year.
While that is just a small fraction of total usage, it is still, water that is given away, to be sold.
Channel 9 reached out to various water companies but did not hear back.
Some states, like Connecticut and Maine, collect fees for bottle water.
A decade ago, Florida considered a similar fee structure, but that idea failed and has not been brought back.