Sleepy Creek Lands — a 29,000 acre ranch in Northeast Marion County — wants to pump 1.46 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan Aquifer to grow the sustenance for the 9,500 head of grass-fed beef. The cattle will graze on a ranch east of Ocala and near Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha River.

Silver Springs, described as Florida’s First Tourist Attraction, is one of the largest natural, first-magnitude springs in the world. Glass-bottomed boats were invented at Silver Springs in the 1870s to wow visitors who gazed into the underwater canyon from which crystal-clear water gushed at a rate of 500 million gallons a day.

However, the spring today is not the crystal-clear wonder it once was. Water flow from the spring was down by more than half in 2012 and 2013. Environmentalists say allowing the cattle ranch to pump another 1.46 million gallons a day will only further lessen it.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, along with environmentalists Karen Ahlers and Jeri Baldwin filed a legal challenge after the staff of the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) recommended approving the permit. They say that the water permits SJRWMD already issued have pushed the springs to its limit and these new permits would further degrade the springs if pumped to capacity. But an administrative law judge sided with Sleepy Creek, which is owned by Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said adding more stress by pumping water from the aquifer near the springs and dumping more pollution into the watershed from the stormwater runoff of thousands of head of cattle is shortsighted.

“Silver Springs is a national landmark, our first tourist destination, and it is already impaired. Why would you approve more damage to be done to it?” she said. “Right now we are using Florida in an extremely unsustainable way. There are limits to the available amount of water, and many of us believe we have already reached it.”

The permit and all recommendations and objections will now go before the board of the St. Johns River Water Management District for public meetings and a vote.