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Great Lakes Article:

Bottled-water biz all wet, say critics
Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service
Posted 11/12/2002

- 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 profits.

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," he said.

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 supplies.

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 the project.

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 the House.

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. - www.perriergroup.com

Save America's Water - www.saveamericaswater.com

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