By Martin E. Comas, Orlando Sentinel, June 21, 2009
On any given day, more than 3.6 million gallons of water — more than enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools — is sucked up from the ground in Florida, put into bottles and sold.
All that water helps fuel a billion-dollar bottled-water industry in the United States that has seen sales top 8.6 billion gallons last year, springing more than 83 percent since 2000, according to the New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp.
Critics say tapping the aquifer for a profit — while residents face strict lawn-watering restrictions and local governments are making plans to tap alternative water sources — is tough to swallow.
“In the United States and in Florida, clean drinking water is available to almost everyone. You can get the same thing [as bottled water] when you turn on the tap,” said Peggy Cox, a Lake County environmentalist and member of the Orange Audubon Society. “And in Florida, we already have a great demand on our freshwater sources. A lot of people see this as an extraction of those sources and then selling the water for profit. I think that’s what gets people.”
The debate came to a boil in recent months as opponents fought California-based Niagara Bottling LLC’s request to draw almost half a million gallons of water daily from the Floridan Aquifer near Groveland.
But commercial bottlers and state water-management officials say the amount of Florida groundwater — including spring water — tapped for packaging is scant. It’s slightly more than one-tenth of 1percent of the more than 4 billion gallons of total water that is pulled out of the ground every day by homes and businesses throughout the state.
It’s like taking a quick sip from a gallon jug.
“It’s a relatively small amount,” said Hank Largin, spokesman for the St. Johns River Water Management District.
For example, about 1.7 million gallons of the 1.6 billion gallons of groundwater drawn every day within the St. Johns district is for commercially bottled water. The St. Johns district includes Volusia, Seminole, Brevard and portions of Lake, Osceola and Orange counties.
In comparison, about 880 million gallons a day is used for public supply, including businesses and homes. Much of that flows through sprinklers for lawns and landscaping. An additional 384 million gallons a day goes toward agriculture in the district.
Bottled-water companies also draw a relative drop in the bucket compared with other beverage companies.
•Beer: Anheuser-Busch’s Jacksonville brewery has a permit to draw more than 6.25 million gallons a day for the brewing, bottling and packaging of its beer.
•Juice: The Cutrale Citrus Juices USA plant in Leesburg is allocated 904,110 gallons of water per day for juice production, fruit processing and irrigating its 4.4 acres of landscaping.
Water is ‘gold’
Still, although the amount of aquifer water going into plastic bottles may appear minor, foes of the Niagara permit and the bottling industry do not buy the drop-in-the-bucket argument about bottled water.
They say it’s another new way — another straw in the ground — of pulling water from the ground for a profit.
“Our water in Florida is our gold,” said Kaye Stevens, a former television and film actress who now leads an environmental group. Based in Marion County, her Blue Panthers group advocates water conservation and protection of the Florida panther. “We just can’t take it for granted like we used to. There’s only so much of it, and once it’s gone there isn’t a prayer in the world to bring it back.”
The Groveland City Council and Lake County Commission filed a legal challenge to Niagara’s request last summer, saying that it’s not in the public interest — especially when the St. Johns district has tightened watering restrictions and urged communities to search for alternative water sources. That’s hypocritical, according to Groveland council members and other opponents.
Niagara currently bottles water at the Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park near Groveland, but that water is trucked in from Wildwood Springs in Sumter County.
Groveland goes it alone
Lake County Commissioner Elaine Renick, who strongly opposes Niagara’s request to draw water from south Lake, said the company doesn’t need an additional source of water for bottling, especially in an area considered a “water-resource cautionary area.”
“No one is trying to shut them [Niagara] down,” she said. “But it makes no sense for them to put an additional well in this area when they have all the water they need.”
St. Johns staff members have recommended Niagara be granted a five-year permit. Groveland is now going it alone in the challenge since Lake County pulled out in March, saying the fight was getting too expensive.
Niagara counters by touting the jobs it says are being created by purifying and bottling the water at its south Lake plant.
An administrative-law judge is scheduled to issue a recommendation on Niagara’s request this summer. After that, the St. Johns district governing board will have the final say on the permit.
Industry vs. agriculture
Jim McClellan, a spokesman for Nestlé Waters North America, one of the largest water-bottling corporations in the U.S., said water-bottling companies are unfairly targeted. Other industries, he noted, also use large quantities of water for a profit but are overlooked.
A tomato farm, for example, uses millions of gallons of water to grow its crop, McClellan said, “and the farmer can then sell the tomatoes out of state. He probably has only two or three full-time employees with a few migrant laborers to harvest the crop,” whereas a water-bottling company will have a larger number of employees year-round.
Water bottling “is a great industry for a rural community because it provides local jobs that are not going anywhere,” he said.
McClellan added that many communities think nothing of adding thousands of future homes in rural areas that will use water to irrigate lawns.
“The question is, what are you getting more value from your water: adding another subdivision with hundreds of homes or using that water for an industry that will add jobs? I would argue that you’re getting a lot more bang by adding a water-bottling company.”
He also said residents turn to bottled water when a natural disaster — such as a tornado or hurricane — shuts down local water-supply sources.
Why bottled water?
Renick continues personally to oppose Niagara even though the fight became too pricey for the county. She bristled at comparing the bottled-water industry with agriculture.
“When agriculture uses water, it is for irrigation, and it hits the ground and it stays here,” she said. “What they [water bottlers] do is use the water to bottle it and ship it away. … If you’re going to be drinking water, why does it have to be bottled water? I think a lot of people use it as a convenience.”
Dick Batchelor, a political analyst and former state representative who led a recent rally against Niagara’s request, said water-bottling companies “have a great scheme” because they are pulling water for free from the ground, bottling it and then selling it.
He proposes that beverage companies — including water bottlers, fruit juicers and breweries — be charged by the gallon for water they pull from the ground.
“The water supply belongs to the people of the state of Florida,” he said “But our water supply is limited. That’s why cities and counties are now being asked to find alternative sources for their water supplies.”
Martin E. Comas can be reached at 352-742-5927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.