Video at August 28 public hearing of manure runoff from Sleepy Creek Lands property.

On Friday, August 29, the administrative hearing for Sleepy Creek Lands (aka Adena Springs Ranch) wrapped up after five exhausting and contentious days of technical, legal and public testimony.

We anticipate a ruling from Administrative Law Judge Gary Early within the next 60 days.

As you will recall, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Sierra Club Florida, Florida Defenders of the Environment and two community leaders, Karen Ahlers and Jerri Baldwin, challenged the permits for Sleepy Creek Lands, the massive cattle operation located near Silver Springs. We believe Sleepy Creek is a significant threat to the health of Silver and Salt Springs and the Silver, Ocklawaha, and St. Johns Rivers, as a result of over-pumping from the aquifer and nutrient loading from the manure of 9,500 head of cattle and the use of large quantities of fertilizer. We also question the validity and accuracy of the modeling upon which the challenged permits are based. Click here for more information about this important issue.

Despite the legal hurdles we had to overcome (more on that later) and the immense financial resources of the applicant, our legal and technical team presented a powerful and compelling case for Judge Early to consider. We were able to deliver a solid punch, demonstrating the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the two permits in question, a Consumptive Use Permit for 1.46 million gallons of water per day (mgd) and an Environmental Resource Permit for the significant amount of nutrient pollution that will further pollute our rivers, springs and aquifer.

I can’t say enough about the relentless commitment and courageous spirit of our team. Their inspiring dedication, expertise, and leadership are much to be admired and appreciated. This collaborative effort only made us better, providing us with a stronger voice and more effective use of our limited resources. It also served to motivate us and strengthen our resolve throughout this high-stakes battle.

The high point of the week was the public hearing held on Thursday, August 28.  More than 100 concerned citizens from Jacksonville to Ocala delivered passionate testimony as to why such an intensive use of this property and our groundwater resources should not be allowed. It was truly moving, providing fuel for the soul and further evidence that this project is clearly not in the public interest.

Adjacent property owners to the Sleepy Creek/Adena Springs Ranch shared stories of diminished quality of life as a result of the intensive land-clearing that has occurred and small herd of cattle already located onsite. One neighbor showed a video of manure-filled stormwater from the Ranch flowing onto her property. Others spoke of dry wells, sinkholes and drained lakes due to excessive pumping from our already over-tapped aquifer.

Spring and river advocates stood united, making a powerful and articulate statement about the value of Florida’s waterways and critical need to protect them for current and future generations. Kayakers, artists, anglers, hikers, and farmers alike spoke to the importance of these waterways to our mental and physical well-being, our quality of life, and our economy. Heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who took the time to speak out for our rivers and springs.

Not one citizen spoke on behalf of the massive beef operation.

Unfortunately, the hurdles citizens must overcome to challenge ill-conceived projects like this one that threaten our waterways were also painfully obvious. For instance, the Florida Legislature shifted the burden of proof in 2011. This regressive policy change now requires citizens to prove that a development project will harm our environment, instead of requiring the developer to demonstrate that it will not. The significance of this change was painfully obvious, as we experienced how much more difficult it has become for citizens to defend our waterways. Citizens also have to take on the significant resources of our own government, the water management district, and that of the applicant. In this case, the owner of the Sleepy Creek Lands project is a politically-connected Canadian billionaire, and he has certainly spared no expense to push this project through.

Despite the uphill battle that we faced, we made an extremely strong showing and feel confident in our chances to receive a favorable ruling from the judge. Regardless of the outcome though, the fight to protect Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha, and the St. Johns will surely continue, requiring your unwavering commitment and support. Our waterways need us now more than ever, and we must continue to work together as a united force.

We appreciate the moral and financial support that everyone has provided. You have certainly allowed us to make a strong stand for our rivers and springs. With you by our side, we will continue our quest for a clean and healthy St. Johns River system.

We also hope you will join us on September 13 for the 3rd Annual Protest Adena Flotilla hosted by Karen Ahlers to celebrate these beautiful waters and support the effort to protect them. The Flotilla leaves Silver Springs State Park at 1:00 p.m., paddling down the river to the Ocala Boat Club for live music, food and fun at Ray Wayside Park on SR 40. Click here for information.

For the River,

Lisa Rinaman
Your St. Johns Riverkeeper