OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington, a state of sprawling rainforests and glacier-fed rivers, might soon become the first in the nation to ban water bottling companies from tapping spring-fed sources.
The proposal is one of several efforts at the state and local level to fend off the fast-growing bottled water industry and protect local groundwater. Local activists throughout the country say bottling companies are taking their water virtually for free, depleting springs and aquifers, then packaging it in plastic bottles and shipping it elsewhere for sale.
"I was literally beyond shocked," said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, who sponsored the bill to ban bottling companies from extracting groundwater. "The fact that we have incredibly loose, if virtually nonexistent, policy guidelines around this is shocking and a categorical failure."
Elsewhere, lawmakers in Michigan and Maine also have filed bills to restrict the bottling of groundwater or to tax the industry. Local ballot measures have passed in Oregon and Montana to restrict the industry, although the zoning change in Montana's Flathead County remains tied up in court.
"The Washington state bill is groundbreaking," said Mary Grant, a water policy specialist with the environmental group Food & Water Watch. "As water scarcity is becoming a deeper crisis, you want to protect your local water supply so it goes for local purposes. [Bottled water] is not an industry that needs to exist."
Although much of the controversy around the bottled water industry has concerned "bottled at the source" spring water sites, nearly two-thirds of the bottled water sold in the U.S. comes from municipal tap water, said Food & Water Watch. The Washington state legislation would not keep companies from buying and reselling tap water.
Americans consumed nearly 14 billion gallons of bottled water in 2018, while sales reached $19 billion — more than double the industry's size in 2004. The bottled water industry is expected to grow to more than $24 billion in the next three years, according to Beverage Industry magazine.
Industry leaders have opposed sweeping legislation that would cut off resources, pointing out the potential hit to local employment and the importance of bottled water in disaster relief.
"This legislation would prevent any community from having these jobs or having a project in their area," said Brad Boswell, executive director of the Washington Beverage Association, who testified against the bill. "We think these issues are best dealt with on a project-by-project basis."
The International Bottled Water Association defended the track record of its members. The bill in Washington and other measures to limit the industry "are based on the false premise that the bottled water industry is harming the environment," wrote Jill Culora, the group's vice president of communications.
"All IBWA members," she wrote, "are good stewards of the environment. When a bottled water company decides to build a plant, it looks for a long-term, sustainable source of water and the ability to protect the land and environment."
Culora did not address specific examples of community claims that bottling companies have damaged their watersheds and aquifers.
When residents in Randle, Wash., learned of a proposed Crystal Geyser operation last year, some worried about a large industrial plant in their rural valley near Mount Rainier. Many feared that the company's plan to pump 400 gallons a minute from springs on the site would deplete the local aquifer and dry up their wells.
The worry turned to furor when a leaked e-mail exposed the company's plan to sue the nearby subdivision in response to neighbor opposition, then conduct an underground public relations campaign to gain support for the project.
"Pumping water out of the ground, putting it in plastic bottles and exporting it out of the state of Washington is not in the public interest," said Craig Jasmer, a leader of the Lewis County Water Alliance, which organized to oppose the Randle plant and has pushed for the statewide ban.
Recent news increased the concerns: Last month, Crystal Geyser pleaded guilty to storing arsenic-contaminated wastewater at a California facility and then illegally dumping the water into a sewer after being confronted by authorities. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
This report is a product of Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.