Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Good groundwater management means saying no to bottled water plant

Crystal Geyser Roxane, a springwater bottling company headquartered in California, wants to build a bottling plant in Marquette County.

Last week, the company met with area environmental groups to lay out their proposal...
...which calls for a 100,000-square-foot bottling plant in the town of Oxford just west of Highway 51 in Marquette County. The company intends to eventually pump as much as 300,000 gallons of water per day or about 240 gallons per minute.

The proposed site is adjacent to a stream called Allen Creek and is surrounded by wetlands. But current groundwater laws would offer little protection to such nearby surface waters, which could be lowered by high-capacity wells.

It's a terrible idea, but then, I think bottled water in general is, with only a few exceptions, a terrible idea. We should be working collectively to protect what is the most precious resource on Earth, making sure that it's available in clean, cheap form to everyone. Instead, the tendency is too often to simply throw up our hands and leave it to the for-profit water companies.

It's the great rip-off. And bottled water isn't even necessarily any better than what comes out of our taps. Since bottled water is regulated by the FDA (and not the EPA, as our municipal taps are), the laws governing its quality are quite different. From a National Resources Defense Council report on the matter:
  • City tap water can have no confirmed E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria. FDA bottled water rules include no such prohibition (a certain amount of any type of coliform bacteria is allowed in bottled water).
  • City tap water, from surface water, must be filtered and disinfected. In contrast, there are no federal filtration or disinfection requirements for bottled water.
  • Most cities using surface water have had to test for Cryptosporidium or Giardia, two common water pathogens that can cause diarrhea and other intestinal problems, yet bottled water companies do not have to do this.
  • City tap water must meet standards for certain important toxic or cancer-causing chemicals, such as phthalate (a chemical that can leach from plastic, including plastic bottles); some in the industry persuaded the FDA to exempt bottled water from the regulations regarding these chemicals.
  • City water systems must issue annual "right to know" reports, telling consumers what is in their water. Bottlers successfully killed a "right to know" requirement for bottled water
In addition, bottled water operations suck groundwater out of communities that could otherwise be managing and using the resources on their own terms.

Which is why I was heartened to read that state legislators are going to be reviewing our groundwater laws, hopefully with an eye toward tightening regulations on high-capacity wells--like what CGR wants to build. These super suckers draw at least 100,000 gallons a day, and no doubt have a detrimental impact on surrounding wetlands, streams, and aquifers.
Water experts, such as George Kraft, who heads the groundwater center at UW-Stevens Point, have estimated that 90 percent or more of the state’s surface waters, including springs, are unprotected from excessive pumping as a result of the weaknesses in the state’s laws.
This is important, because in Wisconsin "70% of residents and 97% of communities rely on groundwater as their drinking water source." I don't think anyone can emphasize enough just how important our access to clean water is, and just how dire the situation is becoming.

Those of us lucky enough to live in the relative affluence of these United States have, for the most part, not yet felt the really negative effects of water strain, but it has already started to creep into the lives of people in places like California or Georgia. And in less developed countries, things are already pretty dire. There are simply too many people using too much water.

We're not in trouble because there's not enough water - we're in trouble because the water has been polluted and wasted by us. Through a combination of smart conservation and higher efficiency standards, plus better regulation of how our water resources are utilized, we can come out on top. I do believe that. But I also believe it's going to take some serious elbow grease and a major shift in perspective to make happen.

One good place to start? Change attitudes about bottled water. It has its place - providing a temporary reprieve for people without access to clean drinking water until such time as the public stuff can be cleaned up. Emergency preparedness and response. As a casual beverage for those with access to good tap water, though? That's just needless--not to mention destructive--decadence. Americans throw away something like 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, so we're talking massive amounts of waste here, too. We can do better.

(photo by AdamCohn on Flickr)


Dave Reid said...

It's scary that the regulations are so different. What's just as strange is that some bottled water is really just marked up tap water, what a waste.

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