Cover story: Bottling backlash
Activists push tougher rules for tapping groundwater
Hill Country Observer
December 2008 -- January 2009
The backlash over bottled water
States weigh tougher controls as a booming business slows
by Judy Bernstein
RUTLAND, VT -- Beneath a certain hundred acres in Rutland, a liquid bubbles and rushes, and Joseph Zingale hopes it will bring in riches.
No, it's not oil. It's water, in a huge underground aquifer.
Zingale, Rutland's town administrator, is advertising the water on the town Web site, hoping to find someone who wants to bottle and sell it.
The town discovered the water in the 1990s, when it was looking into building a town water plant. The water is under land that's privately owned, and the landowner is willing to give the town a share of any profits -- in recognition of the efforts the town made to find the aquifer and, now, a bottler.
To Zingale, it's a no-brainer: There's more than a half-million gallons of water flowing daily under the land, which he says is marshy, cannot be developed and would not be accessible to anyone else.
"We're very positive about this," Zingale said. "We don't really see any negatives."
Not everyone shares that opinion, though.
To people like Annette Smith, the idea of someone taking local groundwater by the truckload to package and sell elsewhere is an outrage.
As executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, she said the water could be used for businesses in Rutland and in outlying residential areas where she said the quality of well water is poor.
Smith, who lives about 20 miles south of Rutland in Danby, sees the groundwater as a natural resource that everyone has a stake in protecting. If a bottler starts drawing out large quantities of water, town officials might one day regret the deal, she warned.
"It goes contrary to all logic and the public interest and, frankly, they ought to be ashamed of themselves," she said.
Groundwater is an important issue to her. Six years ago, Smith and some of her neighbors in Danby said their wells were drawn down by the test pumping of a large marble-quarrying operation.
Public resource, private profit?
Tussles over water have been common for years in the West, but they've been popping up more frequently around the Northeast in recent years as the popularity of bottled water has grown. In some areas, environmentalists are warning that underground water supplies are at risk of being strained by bottling and other commercial operations, like golf courses and drilling for natural gas, as well as by erratic weather and intensive development.
Because of these concerns, in fact, lawmakers in Vermont voted earlier this year to set up a new system for regulating large withdrawals of groundwater by commercial enterprises. Environmentalists are calling on New York legislators to enact a similar system.
But the push for new regulation worries some entrepreneurs around the region whose livelihoods depend on selling bottled water. They say their activities are good for the region's economy and merely make use of a plentiful resource that's replenished every time it rains.
Ronald Colton, a major seller of spring water in Stockbridge, Vt., is feeling the shift in attitude and said he fears for the future of the industry. His company, Pristine Mountain Springs Inc., supplies water that's sold by the Vermont Pure label, which is based in Connecticut, and also by the Saratoga label in New York.
Colton said his business is down. Fewer people are drinking bottled water, he said, perhaps because of the lagging economy -- and perhaps because of a campaign by some environmental groups to encourage people to drink tap water instead.
"There seems to be a consensus around that people shouldn't drink bottled water," Colton said. "That's what some tree-huggers say."
Currently he sells about 30,000 gallons a day to Vermont Pure, less than half of what he used to sell to the company, he said.
And although he had expected to supply hundreds of thousands of gallons to a Canadian company, Ice River Springs, at new bottling plants set to open in Pittsfield, Mass., and in Claremont, N.H., he said the amount they need from him now is unclear.
Although his 30-year-old operation is grandfathered under Vermont's new groundwater protection law and therefore won't have to go through its tougher permitting process, he will have to start reporting the number of gallons he sells. He said he fears a tax on that water is coming next.
But Colton said that under the new law, the groundwater is effectively owned by all the state's residents, not individual landowners.
"It's their water now, not mine anymore," he said.
State sets limits
When Gov. James Douglas signed a bill this spring to regulate larger users of groundwater, Vermont was the last state in New England to do so. Most other states around the country have adopted similar laws in recent years, and New York now stands out as one of just a handful that still have no comprehensive protection of groundwater.
The Vermont law, which takes effect in 2010, makes underground aquifers part of the public trust, as surface waters are. The change has philosophical and practical implications, said Jon Groverman [sic], the legal counsel at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Philosophically, it means that the state, rather than individuals, is responsible for the shared resource.
Practically, it means that companies that want to sell groundwater have only a limited right to use it -- a right that's subject to government review. It also means someone can take legal action if they believe their access to groundwater has been harmed by someone else making a large withdrawal.
Vermont's new regulations also say that if water shortages develop, public drinking water and farming will take precedence over all other uses.
"For the future, if water becomes as scarce a resource as it may become, it'll be important to have that designation," Groverman said.
Golf courses and water bottlers are now the largest commercial users of Vermont's water, he said.
The state will now require any company making a large withdrawal -- more than 57,600 gallons per day on average -- to first announce plans to the community and then complete a more thorough permitting process. It also requires large farms and most companies taking water out of the ground to report how much they've taken.
Groverman said the law should help the state gain control of its groundwater. He said it's a vast improvement over the previous situation of having no specific laws dealing with large groundwater withdrawals.
"Time will tell if the law is as protective as we think it will be," he said.
Reporting by large water users, along with mapping of groundwater that the state is beginning to do, will help officials and citizens get a clearer picture of the state's water resources -- and how new commercial uses might affect those resources, he said.
A downside to some people, Groverman said, is that the permitting process set up under the new law is complex. When there are conflicts, he said, large bottling companies likely will have the advantage over townspeople, because the companies will have more money to hire technical experts and scientists to help them navigate the law.
But that's the way the environmental regulatory system works in most other cases, Groverman added.
Others wanted to ban water bottling altogether.
Calls for action
In New York, conservation groups say the lack of regulation of groundwater is a dangerous policy.
In a report issued in September, the group Trout Unlimited called for new controls, citing concerns about depleting water supplies. The report, titled "Tapped Out: New York's Water Woes," says the state is facing urban sprawl, antiquated, leaking public water systems and interest by companies drilling for natural gas and bottling water -- all of which threaten to draw down rivers and streams.
To meet what at least until recently has been a growing demand for bottled water, the report says, companies are looking for new sources. The companies like upstate New York, because it's close to major markets.
The state's lack of regulation makes it more attractive, said Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.
"Water bottling facilities are kind of on to the fact that, 'Hey, New York doesn't really have any controls on these things, so it's easier to site our bottling plants there,'" he said.
The state needs a bill that requires an environmental review for all withdrawals from ground and surface waters, said Kirt Mayland, director of the Eastern Water Project of Trout Unlimited.
Mayland's group says the state needs better data on the size and capacity of its aquifers, on the amount of water taken now and on projected future demands for water. New York also needs better water conservation measures and a stronger emphasis on local water availability when real estate developments are planned, the group contends.
Zingale, Rutland's town administrator, said there's so much water in the aquifer his town is hoping to bottle that there's no chance taking out a portion of it could cause any environmental harm.
Until a few months ago, the town was talking with a company that hoped to bottle up to 6 million gallons per year, a small percentage of the 160 million gallons per year the aquifer is believed to supply, he said.
Zingale said the water is basically there for the taking and can bring the town some needed revenue, at the very least enough to recoup the $100,000 it's spent to find and test the water.
Similarly, Colton said the quantity of water he's drawing out of the ground in Stockbridge isn't enough to pose any environmental risk, although he admitted he doesn't know exactly how much water is available there.
"I'm sure it's billions of gallons," he said.
The bottom line is that the water is plentiful, and the amount he's removing isn't enough to affect anyone else, he said.
"The only water I can sell from my source is what naturally flows to the surface on its own, so I'm not taking any water out of the ground other than what the Lord's providing for me," Colton said.
But Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said no one really knows what the impact of large groundwater withdrawals will be, because no one's been studying it.
"Any time you remove water from the watershed, you are taking it forever and not enabling it to recharge the aquifer," she said. "We don't need to be trucking water around for people to be drinking while they're jogging in Central Park in New York City. We need to keep the water."
In addition to water removal, Smith sees other downsides to the bottling of water. There are all the environmental negatives of the business itself, such as the use of oil for plastic bottles and for transportation.
"It's a resource-intensive business," she said. "It's not a green business. It's not a green-friendly business, the way a lot of bottlers try to present it."
Smith said Vermont's new law is a good first step, but she's not sure it can protect the state well enough.
Current businesses, like Colton's, are grandfathered, she noted. And overall, although the law sets more regulatory hurdles for companies, there's no saying whether state officials will ever deny the permits these companies request.
The law does let town craft ordinances stricter than the state's program, which could make it stronger.
"The most intelligent thing to do is not to extract it," Smith said of groundwater. "Leave it alone unless there is some overwhelming public necessity."
At least for now, the water in Rutland is staying in the ground, because the one company that had expressed interest in bottling it has been quiet for several months.
Zingale said he doesn't know why. The company's interest might have been dampened by the economy, Vermont's new law or some other reason, he said.
U.S. sales of bottled water have been flat the second half of this year, because of the economy and also because the large initial growth rate for the bottled-water business is likely reaching its plateau, said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, a trade publication.
"I even think there are some people going back to tap water," Sicher said.
But Zingale is hoping Rutland's effort to sell water will get a boost from an upcoming article in a Vermont business magazine.
"We're still hopeful that we're going to find someone," he said.
And Colton is still expecting to sell water very soon for the new bottling plant in Pittsfield, Mass., which, as of a year ago, was to be one of several new bottled-water plants in the United States for Ice River Springs, the Canadian company.
"That's the plan," he said.