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Small Towns vs. Nestlé

Rural residents organize to keep their water out of corporate water bottles.

Jenny Tomkins

Terry Swier, of Mecosta County, Mich., demonstrates outside Nestle Waters North America headquarters in Greenwich, Conn.

When Nestlé Waters North America, the world’s largest bottler of water, comes a-courting, promising jobs and increased tax revenues in exchange for local water rights, many small, rural towns get nervous.

Deborah Lapidus, an organizer with the Think Outside the Bottle campaign, says this skepticism stems from Henderson, Texas, which in the 90s saw Nestlé suck one of its wells dry. 

The company prioritizes its own use over the environment and other uses,” says Lapidus.

As well as draining water, Nestlé also attempts to deplete these communities’ finances, Lapidus says. Towns trying to defend their reservoirs have found themselves in costly legal battles. Fryeburg, Maine, for example, has been sued five times by Nestlé for interfering with the right to grow their market share.” 

Last summer, when Nestlé Waters North America/​Poland Spring negotiated with the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, public outcry forced the proposal to be tabled. The trustees of Wells Water District discussed a deal in which 433,000 gallons of water were to be extracted daily from the Branch Brook Aquifer for 0.06 cents per gallon.

Wells residents organized in the group Save Our Water proposed a local ordinance to prohibit the corporate withdrawal of water for resale. Such legislation, first implemented in Barnstead, N.H., had been adopted by two other towns in Maine. Barnstead’s ordinance declares water a common resource for its residents and, more importantly, decrees that within its jurisdictions, corporations may not wield state or federal constitutional powers. 

But Wells’ ordinance was defeated in May, after Nestlé poured money into a campaign convincing local businesses that the ordinance would also curtail their rights. 

Jamilla El-Shafei believes the community made a tactical error by introducing the ordinance before Save Our Water had time to present its case. However, she’s optimistic that Wells’ trustees will turn Nestlé down. 

McCloud, Calif., began its struggle with Nestlé in 2003, when the town negotiated a deal wherein the community would only receive 0.001 cents per gallon of water for a minimum of 50 years. No environmental assessment was conducted, nor was any community input sought in this proposal. It took five years and intervention by the California Attorney General to break the agreement. And Nestlé is still courting the community for a revised deal.

Faced with increased public scrutiny and a growing bottled water backlash, Nestlé is launching a charm offensive. We’re one of 70,000 different types of beverages you can buy. … We use the least amount of water and the least amount of plastic, and we’re good for you,” says Nestlé spokesman Brian Flaherty.

Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, disagrees. In the February issue of Environmental Research Letters, he wrote that bottled water requires as much as 2,000 times the energy cost of producing tap water.” Americans consume around 33 billion liters each year, which requires between 32 to 54 million barrels of oil to produce.

While Nestlé is focused on staking out the environmental high ground, the Out of the Bottle campaign is assisting communities whose water supplies are being threatened and educating the general public on the fundamental question of water.

There are some signs that water activists are succeeding. In 2008, for the first time in its history, the bottled water market declined – mostly due to the recession. This victory was followed by New York Gov. David Paterson’s decision to impose a statewide ban on public expenditures for bottled water. 

Will 2009 be the year when Americans begin to kick their bottled water habit? Small towns like Wells and McCloud hope so.

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Jenny Tomkins, a member of the In These Times Board of Editors, lives in Sycamore, Ill. She has an M.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and currently works as an interim innkeeper. Her abiding passions are politics, her family, and eating, growing and writing about food.
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