Downstream Effects

America's rising thirst for bottled water may be dangerously damaging its aquatic resources.

| Sat May 27, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

America's market for bottled water is swelling like a river in a rainstorm. The business is worth an estimated $4.8 billion annually and is growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year, closing in even on soft drink sales. That may make dentists happy, but it's also making environmentalists and consumer advocates nervous: Behind those labels depicting clear mountain streams and pristine springs, bottled water may be doing damage to human health and the nation's water resources.

Bottlers around the world are climbing over one another to quench America's thirst. Beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are grabbing for a piece of the pie with new labels such as Dasani and Aquafina, respectively. Meanwhile, others, like Nestle's Perrier Group of America (Arrowhead, Calistoga) and McKesson Water (Alhambra, Crystal), are buying up smaller bottlers and beseeching state officials to allow them to tap even more water from the nation's aquifers.

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With the help of clever marketing, the industry has entrenched the notion deeply in consumers' minds that bottled water is supremely clean. But in fact, according to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council, a disturbing proportion of the bottled water brands tested "contained significant contamination." Of 103 brands surveyed, 22 percent contained chemical contaminants that, if consumed over a long period of time, "could cause cancer or other health problems." One brand simply called "Spring Water" turned out to have actually been tapped from beneath an industrial parking lot next to a hazardous waste site.

Part of the problem is poor regulation: According to the report, the federal government makes less stringent demands on bottled water than on humble municipal water. That laxity extends to labeling: As much as 25 percent of the bottled water claiming to be from a spring -- including such well-known brands as Dasani and Aquafina -- is actually just filtered, mineral-enriched municipal water.

Bottlers that do draw their water from springs are creating another kind of problem. Environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the degradation of the rivers and other water sources fed by these lucrative but increasingly diverted springs.

In February , officials in central Florida denied a request from Perrier's Zephyrhills subsidiary for a permit to increase its pumping by 600 percent over the next 10 years from a spring on a private ranch. A judge ruled that the pumping could dry up Tampa Bay kitchen sinks, some 37 miles downstream.

That was a relief to local environmentalists, who say the current level of water withdrawal is already harming the Hillsborough River, which is fed by the spring.

"The upper river is choked out with weeds, and the lower river's got saltwater intrusion," said Terri Wolfe, president of Save Our Springs Inc., who has fought Perrier for the past four years.

Zephyrhills and Robert Thomas, the ranch owner, have since appealed the decision. Thomas insists that the river looks no different than it did when they started pumping in 1989. "The breeze on the river has more of an impact than our proposed diversion," he said. "Making sure that there would be no adverse impact on the environment is so integral to our thinking," added Perrier spokeswoman Jane Lazgin.

Still, Florida isn't the only place where Perrier has been making enemies. Last year, families in Henderson County, Texas lost a court battle against the company in which they claimed that pumping by Ozarka Spring Water, a Perrier subsidiary, was threatening to dry up their wells. Perrier won the case on the basis of Texas' 96-year-old "rule of capture" law, which permits a landowner to pump essentially unlimited amounts of ground water, even if the pumping depletes other wells. Since last December, in Wisconsin, the company has been seeking a source for its forthcoming Ice Mountain brand. In January, the company seemed to have won the blessing of the state's natural resources agency to siphon water from state park land near the town of Wautoma. But when the plan was made public, locals decried the potential damage to the state's best trout stream.

For a few weeks it seemed, paradoxically enough, that the public outcry had pushed the situation beyond the reach of any regulatory controls: Perrier simply took its search to nearby private landowners. Wisconsin essentially places no limits on the amount of water businesses can siphon from a private source and does not require environmental impact studies before starting operations on private land. The legislature quickly moved to introduce such laws, and Perrier backed down. The company is now looking for potential sites in Wisconsin's Adams County and has struck a gentleman's agreement to conduct impact studies on potential sites.

Unimpressed locals have formed a coalition called the Waterkeepers of Wisconsin and have launched a campaign demanding a full environmental impact study of Perrier's proposals and a boycott of all Nestle/Perrier products.

Rivers are delicate ecosystems. According to Kurt Cuffey, assistant professor of geology at the University of California at Berkeley, tapping springs and aquifers even on a small scale can alter the movement of sediment in nearby streams, which can in turn disrupt the food supply for fish and other wildlife. "It's a very complicated system, and we don't have a very good predictive understanding of how the properties of the river channel will be affected [by large-scale pumping]," warns Cuffey.

In coastal areas, tapping aquifers can lead to a second problem: saltwater intrusion. In a healthy ecosystem, the natural flow of groundwater in coastal areas pushes freshwater out against the saltwater, providing a kind of sea wall. When the groundwater flow falters as a result of excessive withdrawals, however, saltwater begins to creep underground, ruining drinking water, wetlands, and crops. Saltwater intrusion is already a problem in parts of coastal California, Florida, and New York as a result of the demands -- including water for bottling -- being made on local water supplies.

Aside from environmental- and health-related concerns, some areas contracting with water bottlers have found themselves having to divide their resources between the needs of the local water supply and those of the bottlers -- even in times of need. Last November, Canadian bottler Artemesia Water Ltd. was granted a withdrawal permit in a region of Ontario that was suffering its worst drought in 60 years. Locals unsuccessfully appealed the permit. And earlier this year, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission gave McKesson permission to activate another well, despite the fact that city officials are worried about the water supply in the event of a drought like last year's.

Water bottlers aren't the biggest problem facing America's hydrological resources; agriculture and municipal water systems still divert far more from state water sources than a single water bottler could dream of. But as the industry grows, inevitably so too will its impact on the ecosystem and on local water supplies. As more activists wake up to the possible dangers of over-pumping, bottlers could find themselves swimming against a rising current.