Valentine’s Day in the United States is a time to celebrate what we love—and is usually focused on rekindling our relationships with our romantic partners. This year I invite us to stretch our love to include Earth herself. The single, comprehensive Earth community provides us our life’s sustenance, our very home, and is the context for all the relationships that are essential for our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Clearly Earth deserves heart-felt protection!

My own heart was opened more deeply when I attended the Global Alliance on the Rights of Nature Summit in Quito and Otavalo, Ecuador, last month. Ecuador is the only country in the world that has constitutionally protected Nature’s rights to exist, persist, maintain, regenerate, and flourish. For five days I met with over 60 Earth jurisprudence leaders, international environmental activists, and indigenous leaders who spoke about the devastation happening to their lands, their people, and their cultures.  Their stories were stories of resistance and hope, stories highlighting how the law has failed to protect their communities.

The Summit concluded in Quito, with over 400 participants attending the world’s first Tribunal on the Rights of Nature, chaired by the internationally renowned Dr. Vandana Shiva of India. Eight international cases of violations of the Rights of Nature were presented to the Tribunal in an evidentiary hearing forum. After a day-long hearing, the Tribunal determined that each of the cases (which can be found at therightsofnature.org) would advance to the next World Tribunal on the Rights of Nature to be held in Lima, Peru, in December 2014.

Then I returned home and my heart expanded as I experienced the power, beauty, and solidarity of folks like the Silver Springs Alliance, dedicated to protecting the health of the Silver River, and the Preserve Brevard members. But soon my heart clinched again as this week the St. Johns Water Management District approved the Niagara Bottling permit allowing Niagara to double its pumping from the Floridan Aquifer to nearly a million gallons a day–in direct contrast to already low flows of the Wekiva River Basin and neighboring springsheds.  This approval was granted over an incredible amount of citizen resistance and registered public comments opposing the permit.

Our work to love and protect the natural systems that are our home areas expands daily. I used to live in Southwest Florida. Now an oil boom and hydro-fracking threat is taking place in that corner of the state. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently approved a proposed oil well located approximately three-quarters of a mile west of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Apparently nearly 115,000 acres of mineral rights have been leased by a Texas company from Collier Resources.  This lease, which runs for five years and can be extended, includes large portions of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW Lands), and even the famous Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary with some of the last old-growth cypress in our state.

The onslaught feels endless and my heart wavers at times. But as I learned from the tribal peoples in Ecuador, our role is to defend with our lives the land that sustains the community’s wellbeing. Let our hearts burn in defense of our home areas. And may we take the time to savor the natural beauty and resiliency that the land community provides us. Be still my heart, and listen. Adelante!

Heart Pods (photo by D. Sharon Pruitt)

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CEJ director Patricia Siemen and CEJ staff attorney Rob Williams were among numerous citizens and organizations submitting comments to the St. Johns River Water Management District, raising serious concerns about Niagara Bottling’s request to nearly double its water withdrawals from 484,000 gallons per day to 910,000 gallons per day and shift its target from the Upper Floridan Aquifer to the Lower Floridan Aquifer.

Williams and Siemen’s February 10, 2014, letter pointed out that the Wekiva River and its associated springs–which will be impacted by any increased water withdrawals–are already below the minimum flow levels established by the District itself, and the District’s own rules require that a consumptive use permit should not be issued if it will cause a surface water  course to fall  below the minimum flow.

Williams and Siemen’s letter also challenged the analysis Niagara submitted in support of its application for the increase, pointing out that the analysis itself is flawed and that it is also inconsistent with recent information from the Central Florida Water Initiative.  They cited the District’s own studies and reports to show that the Wekiva Basin springs and the Wekiva River are already suffering ecological harm as a result of lack of water, and called upon the District to follow its own rules to protect them from further damage.

On February 11, 2014, the District granted Niagara’s request to double the amount of water it  pumps from the aquifer.  

From the letter:

We believe that this permit application raises a question of profound importance to the current and future citizens of our state. Simply put, will the water management district act to protect the ecological integrity of the Wekiva Basin and the Wekiva River?

. . . .

The facts set out in this letter are already well known to you and the Board from our extensive prior correspondence. They have not been disputed and, since they largely are derived from the district’s own data, it seems difficult to see how they could be challenged. In response to our numerous letters, we received a response from Deputy Secretary Drew Bartlett, dated November 8, 2013. Although Mr. Bartlett acknowledged that Rock and Wekiwa Springs are projected to fall below the MFLs by 2015[, he states] that “district staff has made a reasonable case that the violation of MFLs for Wekiwa and Rock Springs may not occur by 2015 in the absence of increased withdrawals” (emphasis added). Now, three months later, the Board is on the brink of authorizing an increase in withdrawals.

We have repeatedly asked you to implement a recovery plan for the Wekiva basin as required by the statute. To date no such plan has been implemented. We have also asked that you declare a water shortage and implement conservation measures as provided under the district’s rule. We have been told by Mr. Bartlett that in response to our request to follow the law, the district intends to repeal the portion of the MFL rule requiring the phased water restrictions. Today we again ask that you protect the precious treasure of the Wekiva River, one of only two nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in our state, by denying Niagara’s permit application as required by Chapter 40C-2.301(5)(a).

Read the full text of the letter here.

Wekiwa Canoes (photo by Jane Goddard)

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