Part III: Why Bottled Water is Bad for Water
Welcome to Part III of Bottled Water: Why It’s Bad for You, the Environment, and Water. In Part III I’ll be looking at the impacts that bottled water has on water itself (and therefore on the communities and environment near this water). First I wanted to say thanks to everyone that has been commenting on Part I and II. It’s been great to hear your thoughts and discuss the tragedy which is bottled water with you. So how does bottled water impact the water system? Let’s take a look.
The main reason that bottled water is bad for the water system is because of something called water mining. In simple terms water mining is the practice of a bottled water company going somewhere, drilling, pumping out groundwater, and then leaving, but it’s so much more than that. A more official definition given by the state of California defines groundwater mining as “The process, deliberate or inadvertent, of extracting groundwater from a source at a rate in excess of the replenishment rate such that the groundwater level declines persistently, threatening exhaustion of the supply or at least a decline of pumping levels to uneconomic depths.” So what are the issues?
- Groundwater Mining AKA Groundwater Depletion: Bottled water companies are like any other business in that they’re there to make a profit. Therefore, when they go into a community which they’ve identified as a good place to set up shop they’re there to pump as much water as they possibly can. When they withdrawal water is also called consumptive use, which is when you take groundwater out, but don’t put it back. In this case they take the groundwater out, bottle it, and then ship it all over the country or world. This water never goes back to where they took it from. Groundwater depletion impacts everyone and everything in the area who uses water, which is another way of saying it impacts EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING in the area; farmers, businesses, animals, ecosystems, tourism, recreation, and the regular guy getting his water from a well. There are a number of negative effects of this.
- Give a Penny, Take a Penny: You know those little dishes at your local corner store that people leave a penny in so if someone is short a penny they just take from there? Well if people only take pennies and no one leaves them the system doesn’t work. This is kind of like that. In order to use groundwater sustainably you can’t take more from it than what goes back into it each year. However, using the groundwater sustainably isn’t of any concern to the bottled water companies, and they just pump, pump, pump. As much as they possibly can (or, as much as their lawyers were able to negotiate in their contract). This number can reach into the hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year.
- Taking More Than Their Share: When a bottled water company goes in and pumps millions of gallons of water out of the ground that means there are millions of gallons less for anyone who they share this water with as well as for the environment. When you pump groundwater unsustainably the level of the water table drops. In order for someone to pump water from a well their well must extend into the water table. Therefore, when the water table drops they need to either deepen the existing well or drill a new well which means a cost to that person. Another impact is that now that the water table is lowered this person might not be able to pump as much water as they used to. This could have huge implications for farmers who use this water to grow their livelihood. Further, pumps use electricity, so the deeper you have to pump the water from the more electricity you use, and the more money you’re going to spend.
- Saltwater Intrusion: If the bottled water plant is anywhere near a body of salt water over pumping can lead to saline water. In its natural state there is a balance between fresh water and salt water that keeps the salt water at bay. However, once the freshwater levels start to decline the balance shifts, and the salt water heads in to fill the gap.
- Freshwater Intrusion: Not near salt water? Don’t worry, your water can still be contaminated. In much the same way as the salt water fills the void left by declining water levels, so will fresh water that is near the aquifer. This is fine, unless this freshwater is contaminated in some way or of poorer quality than the natural water in the aquifer, in which case it contaminates the aquifer. Once this happens it is very hard, if not impossible, to bring the groundwater back to the quality it was.
- Ecological Death:A lot of people don’t realize it, but rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater all are connected. The water flowing in rivers can, and a lot of the time does, come from groundwater migrating horizontally into the riverbed. That’s how rivers keep flowing long after the rain stops and the runoff from snow is depleted. Groundwater depletion can impact lakes and wetlands by either interrupting the water flow to the lake or wetland, or by increasing the rate that water moves from the lake or wetland into the aquifer. Another impact is that plants need water to grow, and whenSubsidence over the years in the San Joaquin Valley, CA. Photo via gallery.usgs.govthe groundwater falls below a point that the plants can reach they can no longer grow. All of these things can lead to reduced flow/level of water, ecological failure, and the death of plant and animal life.
- Land Subsidence: Groundwater fills the voids that are in the soil and keep everything in place. Once you start taking more groundwater out than is going back in you all the sudden have voids that aren’t filled by anything, and this leads to the ground subsiding. This can mean anything from a drop in ground elevation to a huge sink hole.
- Not a Community Player: When a bottled water company comes in and makes a contract, say for 400,000 gallons of water a year, they’re going to take that water no matter what. Doesn’t matter if there’s a drought and the surrounding communities are rationing their water, or any other reason. Their motivation is profit, not being your friend.
A few other points…
- It takes 3x the amount of water to produce a plastic bottle than it does to fill that same bottle. So for a 1 liter bottle of water you need 4 liters. When I read this fact I just think the world has gone crazy. This makes no sense.
- We’re taking a finite resource that people need on a day-to-day basis and giving it to huge corporations at a very low cost who then make billions of dollars off of it while the community, which was surely promised economic growth, suffers from all of the impacts listed above (which can actually hurt the local economy). Most governments do nothing about it because companies like Nestle funnel millions of dollars to lobby for their cause. It takes the power of the people to make any real difference.
Did I miss anything?
As you can already probably see, this is all very bad for the people living around these bottling plants as well as for the environment. I’ll give you one example of harm done, and another of success in stopping Nestle (Nestle is the largest bottled water manufacturer in the world, and therefore fight a lot of battles).
- Pakistan – 2012 – Nestle has been blamed for depleting water resources, leading to a drop in the water table from 100 feet to 300-400 feet and the reduction of available clean water in the area. Because the levels are so low the water that was pulled to the surface was very dirty and undrinkable. The village councilor asked Nestle to provide piped drinking water to the village, a request that was denied. Pretty smart move huh? Come in, pump the ground water to a point that villages are suffering from water shortages, bottled that water, and sell it back to the people now that they have no other option for water.
- McCloud, CA – 2003-2009 – Again Nestle tried to get into a small community and take their water. Their plan? A million square foot facility where they would bottle the 1,250 gallons per minute they were planning on taking from a glacier-fed spring, and then load it into 300 semi-trucks per day for delivery to far off places in California. Their cost? $350,000 US per year for 100 years. Well, the plan divided this small town, with half in support, and half against it, fearing that the plant would have negative impacts on Mount Shasta’s fragile ecosystem. The opponents went out and got some wealthy backers, ordered more environmental studies, and lobbied politicians. To make a long story short, after six years the people of McCloud had their success, and Nestle abandoned their plan and moved on. You can read a good article about it here and then read Nestle’s letter stating they’re giving up here (I quite enjoyed reading it).
So there is hope, but it could take you a long time to win. This is only one of countless battles fought against bottled water companies throughout the world. In the US there have been battles over water in California, Washington, Michigan, and Maine to name a few. There have also been battles over groundwater depletion in India and Africa.
What this all comes down to is taking something that people, animals, and everything else needs to survive in order for a few companies to make a huge profit. Millions of people die every year because they don’t have clean water, and here we are handing it to these corporations to bottle up and sell back to us at a huge mark up, and a mark-up that a lot of people in developing countries can’t afford to pay. I may have said this in one of the previous parts, but think what you could do with just a fraction of the money that these corporations make. You could literally save millions of people’s lives. Let that sink in. MILLIONS OF PEOPLE. But we live in a world full of greed, where corporations put their bottom line above all else. It’s pretty sad times.
Below I’ve included a few videos: The first is the Story of Bottled Water by The Story of Stuff Project. Next is a trailer for the documentary Tapped, and if you like the trailer the full documentary is the next video (the documentary is also available on Netflix, the version below isn’t good quality). Finally, the last is a trailer for the documentary Bottled Life. I haven’t seen Bottled Life so I can’t really comment on that, but the others are a good watch.
Through this series my hope was to make people aware of what the bottled water industry is all about and the negative impacts it’s having. I hope I succeeded in doing that, and hopefully the word will spread. That’s where you come in. Tell your family. Tell your friends. Tell anyone that will listen. We need to take power away from these huge multinational corporation or one day we’ll all wake up with a dry mouth, no money in our pockets, and a whole lot of regret we didn’t act sooner. As always, thanks for reading.
Pablo Santa Cruz