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Washington state proposal would stop bottled water companies from tapping natural water sources

Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state is taking a stand against bottled water companies.

A bill making its way through the legislature would officially put a stop to new permits for groundwater withdrawals, which have long been criticized by activists for using up natural resources.

The legislation specifically dictates “any use of water for the commercial production of bottled water is deemed to be detrimental to the public welfare and the public interest.”

The bill, which passed the Senate by a 28-20 vote, moves on to the House.

If passed and signed, the bill would affect applications for new water withdrawals received since January 2019.

Washington’s proposal isn’t the first of its kind, and it reflects a larger trend across the country.

Legislation has been introduced in Michigan and Maine to protect groundwater from commercial use. In Florida, an online petition aiming to prevent Nestle from bottling water from Ginnie Springs has more than 83,000 signatures. And in Oregon, local officials ditched a deal with Nestle to open a plant, following environmental concerns.

Mary Grant, campaign director at the non-profit Food and Water Watch, called the Washington legislation “groundbreaking.”

“This legislation would help protect the state’s water resources, helping keep the limited freshwater supplies in the state, for the public benefit and the public good,” Grant said in a statement. “It would ban one of the worst corporate water abuses — the extraction of local water supplies in plastic bottles shipped out of watersheds and around the country.”

On the other hand, the International Bottled Water Association said in a statement that the Washington bill is based on the “false premise” that the industry is bad for the environment. Bottled water companies aren’t the only ones using groundwater, the statement said, and companies follow “all government mandates” when conditions require it to reduce water usage.

“The proponents of anti-bottled water efforts such as this one, use emotionally charged arguments that are not based on facts or sound science,” it read.

Activists worry companies are depleting freshwater resources

The issue surrounding bottled water companies is rooted in the fact that the companies used groundwater as a main source of bottled water, according to the IBWA.

Groundwater is a renewable resource, replenished through the hydrologic cycle.

But what makes opponents angry is how much the bottled water companies take. Activists argue the companies are depleting limited groundwater resources.

In 2018, Michigan Rep. Yousef Rabhi proposed multiple bills to protect Michigan’s freshwater, including restrictions on bottled water companies.

“Michigan’s unique freshwater resources belong to all of us, and they need to be managed in the best interests of the public,” Rabhi said in a news release at the time. “Responsible management includes ensuring that water isn’t shipped out of the watershed and lost from the Great Lakes forever. We should also stop giving groundwater essentially for free to bottling companies that profit off its sale.”

Three years earlier, in 2015, a California drought caused similar criticism, when Nestle continued to bottle 725 million gallons of water annually at its plants. More than 3 billion gallons of water are bottled in California annually, the IBWA said at the time. The biggest users of groundwater, however, were farmers.

This heavy use of groundwater by both bottled water companies and citizens could result in its depletion — which would mean significantly less water for drinking, agriculture and other needs, according to the US Geological Survey.

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