Posted on June 17, 2006

Is bottled water war reaching the boiling point?

The public's insatiable thirst for bottled water spurs industry expansion

The problem with Lovewell Pond, Howard Dearborn thinks, is the water that’s not in it.

Dearborn, who has lived on the pond’s shores in Fryeburg, Maine, since the early 1950s, says its water has turned from clear and sandy to dark and weedy in the past year. He thinks the problem is a cutback in clean water from a nearby natural spring, which used to dilute the murky flow coming in from the Saco River. Now, though, millions of gallons of the spring’s water are pumped into tanker trucks bound for a Poland Spring bottling plant.

"Where do they think the water was going before they took it?" asked Dearborn, 88.

Because of complaints such as Dearborn’s, Maine has become a battleground in a growing fight that pits environmentalists against an industry that has become rich by selling the purity of nature: the bottlers of spring water.

In a series of lawsuits and statehouse debates that reached critical mass in the past year, activists and lawmakers have questioned whether bottling companies have become too greedy about the water they take from the ground, and — in some cases — what gives them the right to take it at all.

"The problem of bottled water is it’s a new, unexpected and 100 percent consumptive use," unlike irrigation, for instance, which allows some water to return to the soil, said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has written about the bottling industry. "Once you put water in a bottle, it’s gone."

Because of this, Glennon said, "bottled water raises the issue in the most profound way, of ‘Whose water is it?’ "

It’s a question that has not been raised much until recently in Eastern states,, which didn’t have the kind of water battles that occurred out West between irrigation-dependent farmers and growing cities. Water experts say that, in many Eastern states, the water rights come with the land: Within certain limits imposed by permits, any water that comes out of your ground can be yours.

This year two Eastern states, New Hampshire and Vermont, have tightened their restrictions on large-scale water withdrawals, both with bottlers in mind, and another such bill has been proposed in Michigan. In California, Michigan and New Hampshire, local groups opposed to new water wells have filed suit.

Last year in Maine, a citizens group proposed a measure thought to be the first of its kind: to tax every gallon of water extracted. That effort failed, but now the group is pushing a proposal that declares, "The citizens of the State collectively own the State’s groundwater." It would create a system in which companies would have to bid against one another to tap prime water aquifers, with the proceeds going to the state.

In response to all this, bottling companies have said they’re being targeted unfairly, noting that agricultural irrigation and city water systems extract far more water from the earth than they do. A recent survey by a University of Maryland researcher found that only about 0.019 percent of all the groundwater removed in the United States winds up in bottles.

The companies’ theory: It’s their now-ubiquitous bottles — which make plain the fact that plain old water is being sold for more than soda or gasoline — that have led them to be singled out for criticism.

"I think people fundamentally have an issue with people taking the water and selling it," said Bill Maples, who manages the Poland Spring plant in Hollis, Maine, where empty plastic bottles zip like tram cars overhead and an average of more than 3.5 million containers are filled every day. "If there was caramel coloring in it, it wouldn’t matter" as much, he said.

The spring-water business is an old one: The first three-gallon jug of water from the actual Poland Spring was sold for 15 cents in 1845, and in western Maryland, Deer Park spring water was first bottled for railroad passengers in 1873.

But now, the industry has been transformed by Americans’ enormous thirst for packaged water, as annual per capita consumption has gone from less than three gallons in 1980 to more than 26 today. Poland Spring and Deer Park are among several regional brands owned by the Swiss firm Nestle, which last year controlled more than 31 percent of the U.S. bottled-water market.

In the past few years, Nestle and other firms have been looking for new springs to meet the growing demand– and, in the process, setting off a series of water wars in miniature.

In southern New Hampshire, a coalition of activists and town governments filed suit against a company called USA Springs, which wants to bottle hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day. They charged that such a large-scale operation might deplete local homeowners’ wells, in addition to rivers and wetlands that the spring water feeds.

By the time the state Supreme Court weighed in last month, handing a victory to USA Springs, the fight had become so bitter that the company’s attorney issued a one-sentence statement : "Veni, Vedi, Vici." The middle Latin word was misspelled, but the reference to Julius Caesar was clear — in this battle, the bottler felt it had finally conquered.

Of all the states with water skirmishes, though, the stakes may be highest in Maine, where Poland Spring pumps out at least 600 million gallons a year, enough to cover the Mall in Washington to a depth of nearly six feet. Here, the state is the brand — the company’s slogan is "What It Means to Be From Maine" — and the brand is a powerful player in the state, employing at least 600 people.

In Fryeburg, Dearborn’s belief that the removal of about 100 million gallons from the spring near his house has had a detrimental effect has been rejected by Poland Spring and state environmental officials. They say that, in a state that receives 24 trillion gallons of rain every year, even this large removal of water is too small to have a significant effect on the pond.

"It just wouldn’t be measurable," said Thomas Brennan, a Nestle employee who looks for new well sites among Maine’s underground aquifers. These deposits of sand and gravel are "recharged" as rainwater percolates down between their grains.

But Jim Wilfong, leader of a group called H2O for ME, says not enough research has been done on the effects of water bottling, either here at Lovewell Pond or elsewhere in Maine. His group’s proposed initiative, naming the citizenry as owners of Maine’s groundwater, is intended to give the state a stronger hand in monitoring and controlling new wells.

If "the people of Maine find out that, de facto, they’ve lost control of their water, that would be a really disappointing thing," said Wilfong, a former state legislator.

But even as Wilfong’s group is pushing to give the state a way to slow down or stop new spring-water projects, the state — enamored by Poland Spring’s ability to create jobs — has said emphatically that it wants no such thing.

"We could do a trillion gallons" a year for Poland Spring, said Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation. "The amount of water that could be used in Maine for this type of activity is an endless supply."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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