Water vs. Water

Published On October 26, 2012 | By Hannah Ellsbury | Articles

Bottled water is bad for you, the environment and water itself. The process of bottling water drastically impacts many water systems throughout the world.

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?

  1. Groundwater Mining AKA Groundwater Depletion: Bottled water companies are like any other business in that they’re there to make a profit.  When they go into a community they’ve identified as a good place to set up shop, they are there to pump as much water as they possibly can.   When they withdraw water, is also called consumptive use, they take groundwater out, but don’t put it back.  The groundwater is taken out, bottled, and then shipped all over the country or world.  This water never goes back to where it was taken from.  Groundwater depletion impacts everyone and everything in the area who uses water; 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.
    1. 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.  
    2. Taking More Than Their Share: When a bottled water company 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.  When you pump groundwater unsustainably, the level of the water table drops, which can effect the environment.  In order for someone to pump water from a well, their well must extend into the water table.  Therefore, when the water table drops, the existing well will need to be deepened or a new well drilled which is a cost impact. This could have huge implications for farmers who use the water to grow their livelihood.  Further, pumps use electricity, so the deeper the pump has to go, the more electricity is used, increasing the cost.
    3. 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.  Once the freshwater levels start to decline the balance shifts, and the salt water heads in to fill the gap. 
    4. 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 an 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. 
    5. 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.  Agriculture is impacted as well as plants need water to grow, and when the groundwater falls below the point that 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. 
    6. Land Subsidence: Groundwater fills the voids that are in the soil and keeps everything in place.  Once more groundwater is taken out than is going back in, voids are created. This leads to the ground subsiding and can mean anything from a drop in ground elevation to a huge sink hole. 
    7. 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 will take that water no matter what.  It doesn’t matter if there’s a drought and the surrounding communities are rationing their water,  their motivation is profit.[via HydrateLife]

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4 Responses to Water vs. Water

  1. Advocate says:

    This information is definitely awesome to know and is convincing in itself; however, all arguments are strengthened further by evidence of examples.

    Is there a time when a bottled water company took advantage of their contract to over-pump and deplete resources? If so, we should use this example as a clarion call for legislation or regulation like Love Canal was to Superfund or Donora to the Clean Air Act.

    We need an distinct “name-able” enemy in the tap vs. bottled debate so that our anger and the potential anger of the public can be directed at something/someone we can conceptualize.

    • Anonymous says:

      I heard of a case in Michigan (Mecosta) where they actually managed to ban Nestlé from pumping out huge amounts of ground (spring) water (from the sanctuary springs, I believe) because some studies showed that it would have reduced the water levels of the nearby lakes and especially wetlands by 25%. That would have meant a great cost for the environment, the animals and plants and the decrease of water in the wetlands would have also meant less protection from subsidence.
      I would however also like to know of an exact example for saltwater intrusion. I mean every site says that groundwater mining is the greatest cause of saltwater intrusion but there aren’t any concrete examples…

  2. Let me know when the community figure out how to prevent producing such a lot of trash

  3. Dennis says:

    Over the years I’ve seen the decline of water levels across Florida.
    Before the industry came into Florida, the lakes were pretty much self replinishing from natual wells.
    I strongly suspect the decline of water tables in Florida along with many of it’s smaller lakes drying up (and subsequent increase of sink holes) is in fact due to this water mining.
    But, it’s not limited to mining water to bottle it. It also involves the beverage industry which consumes vast volumes of water as well.
    The decline of the water tables is apparent and is in stark contrast to the melting of the ice caps.
    We’re taking far more than we’re giving back and we’re begining to see the changes in the environment because of it.

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