Fighting over groundwater

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The first time I was exposed to the notion that water rights would provoke warring among nations was back in college, where it was an interesting concept but hardly seemed imminent.

Now, as detailed by Sarah Schweitzer in the Globe this morning, the fight has even come to central Mass.

Nestle, owner of Poland Spring and other bottled water brands, wants to tap an aquifer in Clinton, but some in  neighboring Sterling are objecting on grounds that the source lies within its borders, according to terms of a state law passed in 1882 that gives Clinton rights to surface by not ground waters in the so-called Wekepeke lands.

That's interesting in a historical perspective, and the issue has other tendrils, but to me it misses the important point, which is that anything that supports the bottled water industry runs counter to public interest.

A local spokeswoman for Nestle has the gall to call the company's plans environmentally friendly, because this water will go into 5-gallon bottles that can be reused up to five times, instead of into single-serving sizes. Think how environmentally friendly it would be if she had compared it to Nestle's now-shelved plan for "One Sips," the 1-ounce bottles that would have come in six-dozen packs!

The price offered in the deal is roughly 15 cents a gallon, and then Nestle would sell it for $8 a gallon, according to organizer Deborah Lapidus of Corporate Accountability International, the Boston-based nonprofit leading the fight against bottled water. For such a pittance, I think they'd be better off just keeping their water, which will only become more valuable over time.

Yes, it's easy for me to say, because they are not my taxes that will go down, or my services that will go up, as the result of a deal. But my share of our societal costs — the depletion of water, the accretion in our landfills — will definitely by affected by their decision.


Be careful about assuming anybody's taxes will go down or services will go up. In most of its rural deals, Nestle assumes no responsibility for infrastructure costs, and over the life of a long-term contract, those costs can actually exceed the fees paid by Nestle.

In fact, in the town of McCloud (northern California), Nestle's contract saddles the town with responsibility for the wells, pipelines, etc; pays nothing to mitigate the road damage (500-600 truck trips per day); and doesn't even consider the potential losses due to environmental degradation.

Given that they're talking about a measley $300K annually for the water -- and the contract could last 100 years -- it's clear that 30 years from now the town could easily be in the red.

You make excellent points. I think we agree that the money wouldn't be worth the costs, but I think you have very good additional reasons. ... I certainly don't thing it would be a good deal for the town.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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