Bottled-water biz all wet, say critics
Scripps Howard News Service
- There is a growing national backlash
against bottled water companies, especially market giant
Perrier, by communities that fear local wells, wetlands
and streams will be drained dry in the quest for corporate
Proposals by bottlers to pump huge
amounts of water from rural communities - in some cases
as much as 500 gallons per minute - have drawn intense
opposition in at least six states: Florida, Michigan,
New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.
The battles have launched nearly
a dozen citizen activist groups with names like "Save
Our Springs," "Save America's Water," and "Save Our Groundwater."
The issue has prompted the introduction of bills to tighten
water laws in nearly all of the states where controversy
has arisen and several governors have jumped into the
fray. Lawsuits have been filed in Wisconsin and Michigan,
including one by three Indian tribes. A recent legal case
in Texas went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
In every state except New Hampshire,
the water fights have involved the Perrier Group of America
Inc., which sells more bottled in the United States than
any other company. Perrier is a subsidiary of the multinational
conglomerate Nestle S.A. of Vevey, Switzerland, the world's
largest food company.
Headquartered in Greenwich, Conn.,
the Perrier Group draws water from 75 spring sites across
the country for 15 brands of bottled water, including
the Ice Mountain, Deer Park, Zephyrhills, Poland Springs
and Ozarka labels.
The controversy reflects the phenomenal
success of the bottled water industry, which has annual
sales of $35 billion worldwide. Bottled water sales in
the United States have tripled in the past 10 years to
$5.7 billion in 2000, according to Beverage Marketing
Corp., a New York research and consulting firm. Bottled
water is projected to surpass coffee and milk to become
second in volume to soft drinks by 2004.
To meet demand, bottled water companies
have had to expand their pumping operations and find new
sites to drill wells. In 1990, 2.2 billion gallons of
bottled water were sold in the United States, nearly all
of it produced domestically. By 2005, sales are projected
to top 7.2 billion gallons.
The bottled water fights are "a relatively
new phenomenon," said Stephen Kay, a spokesman for the
International Bottled Water Association. "It's a classic
NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) issue."
Bottled water companies that invest
millions of dollars in pumping operations and bottling
plants have an interest in making sure aquifers aren't
pumped to the point they can't recharge, Kay noted. "It
wouldn't begin to make good business sense to come in
and deplete a water resource and make it not viable,"
But large groundwater users don't
have to pump groundwater to the point of no return before
they adversely affect private wells and the environment,
said University of New Hampshire professor Tom Ballestero,
a civil engineer and hydrologist.
"The groundwater they are pumping
and exporting was going somewhere before where it had
an environmental (benefit)," Ballestero said. "Once you
take it out, it's gone forever."
Perrier spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said
residents in most places are pleased that the company
is creating jobs and generating revenue in their community
and that opponents are a vocal minority.
Perrier's opponents said local opposition
to the company's projects is widespread, but small communities
with limited money and expertise are at a disadvantage.
"It's David versus Goliath," said
Terry Swier, 58, a retired librarian in rural Mecosta
County, Mich., where Perrier has received permission from
the state to construct a plant capable of bottling 260
million gallons of water a year from the local aquifer.
Swier, who had no previous experience
in community activism, is president of Michigan Citizens
for Water Conservation, which was formed last year to
fight the project. She now gives talks to groups across
the state on the importance of protecting local water
The project has become a hot political
issue in Michigan. Gov. John Engler, a Republican, has
sided with Perrier, while state Attorney Gen. Jennifer
Granholm and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, both Democrats, oppose
Last month, three northern Michigan
Indian tribes sued Engler and the state agency that granted
pumping permits to Perrier, arguing the project could
impact rivers and streams that feed the Great Lakes.
Perrier settled on Michigan as the
site for the bottling plant after two attempts to locate
a plant in neighboring Wisconsin met with furious local
opposition. First, the company sought permission to tap
groundwater near Mecan Springs, an area renowned for its
trout fishing. When local opposition proved too intense,
Perrier turned its attention to the tiny farming community
of Newport, where the company eventually wants to pump
as much as 1 million gallons per day.
"This is a company that's going to
make millions of dollars a day off of our water and people
are incensed about that," said Hiroshi Kanno, 64, a retired
government manager. "In our own little world here you
had better not go walking around with a bottle of Poland
Springs or you'll hear about it."
With the help of a volunteer legal
team, residents have sued the state Department of Natural
Resources, trying to get it to withdraw Perrier's permits
to drill wells near Newport.
Residents in South Coventry Township
on the western fringes of the Philadelphia suburbs battled
an expansion plan by Perrier for five years before reaching
a legal agreement last year in which the company abandoned
its proposal to drill new wells and double its water withdrawals.
But in a closely watched case involving
Perrier in Texas, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1999
that property owners can pump as much water as they want
under the state's "rule of capture" doctrine even if the
pumping dries up neighboring wells. The rule of capture,
sometimes described as "the biggest pump wins," has been
in place in Texas since 1908, when the court ruled that
groundwater is so "secret, occult and concealed" that
any attempt to regulate it would be fruitless. Five other
states also adhere to the doctrine.
In Nottingham, N.H., recently incorporated
bottler USA Springs is seeking permission from the state
to pump up to 439,200 gallons a day. In response, Gov.
Jeanne Shaheen has proposed tightening state water laws.
A bill has passed the state Senate, and is pending in
Florida has seen two separate water
bottling battles in recent years, one involving Perrier's
Zephyrhills subsidiary near Tampa and another involving
a landowner near Williston in north-central Florida who
wanted to lease water that feeds the locally known Blue
Grotto to a bottler.
"We're low on water as it is in Florida,"
said Mike Whicker, 65, a retired police officer who gathered
thousands of petition signatures against pumping water
from Blue Grotto. "We sure don't need to be pumping our
water out of the state."
On the Net:
The Perrier Group of America Inc.
Save America's Water - www.saveamericaswater.com