Silver Springs Photo Credit: Bill Belleville


Click here for a factsheet. 
Administrative Hearing Recommended Order 4.29.15
Press Release Response to Recommended Order by Petitioners
JRWMD Press Release – Governing Board Approves Permits

On July 14, 2015, the Governing Board of the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) unanimously approved two permits for Sleepy Creek Lands (formerly known as Adena Springs Ranch), the massive cattle operation located adjacent to Silver Springs.  St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Florida Defenders of the Environment filed an appeal of the decision.     

Continue reading to learn more about the threats to Silver Springs and this important issue.

Location of Sleepy Lands Ranch Phase I, Credit: SJRWMD


One of Florida's most iconic natural treasures and a National Natural Landmark, Silver Springs, has experienced dramatic declines in flow and increases in nitrate levels in recent years. 

 According to Dr. Bob Knight, Director of the Florida Springs Institute, and the Silver Springs 50-year Retrospective Study:

  • Flows have declined by 32% during the past decade and 50% since 1965
  • NO3-N has increased by 176% (2,600% over the entire period of record of more than 100 years)
  • Water clarity has decreased
  • Nighttime dissolved oxygen has declined by about 19%
  • Submerged aquatic plant biomass has declined by 21%
  • Total algal biomass has increased by 371%
  • Ecosystem productivity has declined by 27%
  • Insect productivity has declined by 72%
  • Fish biomass has declined by 92%

Silver Springs provides an important source of fresh, clean water to the St. Johns River system. Cool, clear water bubbles up from the aquifer below flowing from spring vents into the Silver River, which leads to the Ocklawaha River and eventually the St. Johns.  

As a result, in November 2012, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a draft nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Silver Springs and the upper Silver River that calls for a 79% reduction in nitrate concentrations for these waterbodies. A 2004 study indicated that the majority of nitrogen loading to Silver Springs was from livestock waste and commercial fertilizer.  


Now, the health of Silver Springs and Salt Springs (and ultimately that of the St. Johns River) could be further degraded by a massive cattle operation and slaughterhouse that would be located within their springsheds. 

Sleepy Creek Lands (formerly known as Adena Springs Ranch) is seeking a consumptive use permit (CUP) from the St. Johns River Water Management District to irrigate pasture land for 9,500 head of cattle and to operate a slaughterhouse.  The overall project originally included up to 30,000 head of cattle but has been reduced to 17,000. 

The large-scale cattle operation originally had plans to apply for 27 million gallons of water a day (mgd) from the aquifer, but then decided to request 13.267 mgd.   On December 14, 2012, Adena Springs Ranch submitted an amended permit application, reducing its request from the aquifer to 5.3 mgd.

The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) determined that the application lacked necessary technical information and issued a Request for Additional Information (RAI) letter to the applicant on two seperate occassions.   Adena Ranch subsequently requested and received three different extensions, delaying the requirement to provide the requested information to the SJRWMD staff until April 2014.  

On March 28, 2014, the applicant responded to the RAI issued by the SJRWMD, deciding to modify the project by splitting it into three phases and changing its name to Sleepy Creek Lands Ranch.  The pending CUP application now will include only Phase 1 (North Tract) and has reduced its withdrawal request to 1.46 mgd average daily use by modifying two existing CUPs. 

On May 12, 2014, Sleep Creek Lands Ranch received an Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) from the SJRWMD to address potential water quality impacts. 

On May 14, 2014, the SJRWMD staff finished its review of the Consumptive Use Permit (CUP) and issued a Technical Staff Report (TSR) recommending approval of the permit. 

The Phase I request for 1.46 mgd was still a signficant amount of water, especially in an area already showing clear signs of over-pumping from the aquifer and considering the fact that the flows from Silver Springs have dramatically declined in recent years.   Despite the changes to the permit, withdrawing this large amount of groundwater could further reduce the spring's flow, and nutrient-rich waste created from the cattle manure and fertilizers used on the property is likely to reach nearby surface waters and the groundwater that ultimately discharges from Silver Springs. This would only exacerbate the existing problem of elevated nutrient levels in the spring.  

As a result, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Sierra Club Florida, and two concerned citizens, Karen Ahlers and Jerri Baldwin, petitioned for an administrative hearing to challenge the permits on June 2, 2014. 

After our legal challenge was filed, Sleepy Creek Lands submitted a permit modification request for an additional 1.12 million gallons of water a day. On July 15, the SJRWMD issued a Technical Staff Report (TSR) for this request and recommended denial.  Despite recommending denial for the second permit, the SJRWMD failed to account for the significant impacts to the flow of Silver Springs, Silver and Ocklawha Rivers and Salt Springs and the increased nutrient loading that will result from manure and the use of large quantities of fertilizer and water. We also question the validity and accuracy of the modeling upon which the challenged permits are based. As a result, Sleepy Creek and SJRWMD did not provided reasonable assurances that water resources would not be significantly affected.

An adminstrative hearing was held August 25-29, 2014 in Palatka.

During the hearing, it was revealed that the 9,500 head of cattle planned for Phase I will produce about 158 million pounds of manure and 11 millions gallons of urine per year. In addition, 700,000 pounds of nitrogen from fertilizer will be used to grow grass and crops to feed the cattle.

On April 29, 2015 (8 months after the administrative hearing), Administrative Law Judge Gary Early issued his Recommended Order.  Despite evidence that Florida’s iconic Silver Springs would be further degraded from the over-pumping of groundwater and increased nutrient pollution, Judge Early recommended approval of the permit for the massive cattle operation.

The petitioners filed written exceptions to the Recommended Order, explaining where we believed Judge Early erred in his determinations. The Judge's recommendation and these exceptions were considered by the St Johns River Water Management District Governing Board at a meeting on July 14, 2015.  Unfortunately, the Governing Board unanimously voted to approve the permits.  Click here to read the response from St. Johns Riverkeeper. 

Learn more by visiting the District website page about this issue.  

You can send your comments regarding the Sleepy Creek Lands projects directly to the Governing Board members:

John Miklos, Chairman
Maryam Ghyabi, Vice Chairman
Fred Roberts Jr.
George Robbins
Doug Bournique
Douglas Burnett
Lad Daniels
Chuck Drake
Carla Yetter

Anne Shortelle, Executive Director


On June 17, 2013, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Sierra Club Northeast Florida, Florida Springs Institute, and the Center for Earth Jurisprudence hosted the 2nd Save Silver Springs Forum. Click here to access Dr. Robert Knight's eye-opening presentation from the forum.  Dr. Knight is the Director of the Florida Springs Institute.  

In May of 2012, we hosted the first Springs Forum with our partners the Silver Springs Alliance and Florida Springs Institute. Over 250 people attended the event. Speakers included: Dr. Bob Knight, Director of the Florida Springs Institute; John Moran, the renowned nature photographer; Guy Marwick, founding director of the Silver River Museum and Executive Director of the Felburn Foundation; and Whitey Markle, folk musician and Sierra Club representative.

Watch these videos of the outstanding forum presentations by John Moran and Dr. Bob Knight.