Bottlers, States and the Public Slug It Out in Water War

Howard Dearborn, 88, says Lovewell Pond in Fryeburg, Maine, is murkier since a bottler began pumping nearby.
Howard Dearborn, 88, says Lovewell Pond in Fryeburg, Maine, is murkier since a bottler began pumping nearby. (By David A. Fahrenthold -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

FRYEBURG, Maine -- The problem with Lovewell Pond, Howard Dearborn thinks, is the water that's not in it.

Dearborn, who has lived on the pond's shores since the early 1950s, says its water has turned from clear and sandy to dark and weedy in the past year. He thinks the problem is a cutback in clean water from a nearby natural spring, which used to dilute the murky flow coming in from the Saco River. Now, though, millions of gallons of the spring's water are pumped into tanker trucks bound for a Poland Spring bottling plant.

"Where do they think the water was going before they took it?" asked Dearborn, 88.

Because of complaints such as Dearborn's, Maine has become a battleground in a growing fight that pits environmentalists against an industry that has become rich by selling the purity of nature: the bottlers of spring water.

In a series of lawsuits and statehouse debates that reached critical mass in the past year, activists and lawmakers have questioned whether bottling companies have become too greedy about the water they take from the ground, and -- in some cases -- what gives them the right to take it at all.

"The problem of bottled water is it's a new, unexpected and 100 percent consumptive use," unlike irrigation, for instance, which allows some water to return to the soil, said Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has written about the bottling industry. "Once you put water in a bottle, it's gone."

Because of this, Glennon said, "bottled water raises the issue in the most profound way, of 'Whose water is it?' "

It's a question that has not been raised much until recently in Eastern states,, which didn't have the kind of water battles that occurred out West between irrigation-dependent farmers and growing cities. Water experts say that, in many Eastern states, the water rights come with the land: Within certain limits imposed by permits, any water that comes out of your ground can be yours.

This year two Eastern states, New Hampshire and Vermont, have tightened their restrictions on large-scale water withdrawals, both with bottlers in mind, and another such bill has been proposed in Michigan. In California, Michigan and New Hampshire, local groups opposed to new water wells have filed suit.

Last year in Maine, a citizens group proposed a measure thought to be the first of its kind: to tax every gallon of water extracted. That effort failed, but now the group is pushing a proposal that declares, "The citizens of the State collectively own the State's groundwater." It would create a system in which companies would have to bid against one another to tap prime water aquifers, with the proceeds going to the state.

In response to all this, bottling companies have said they're being targeted unfairly, noting that agricultural irrigation and city water systems extract far more water from the earth than they do. A recent survey by a University of Maryland researcher found that only about 0.019 percent of all the groundwater removed in the United States winds up in bottles.

The companies' theory: It's their now-ubiquitous bottles -- which make plain the fact that plain old water is being sold for more than soda or gasoline -- that have led them to be singled out for criticism.

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