Water Part I: Bottled

Two things inspired this week’s feature story: the first was an Agence France-Presse article about a Michigan township that is trying to fight a deal under which the Swiss-based food conglomerate Nestlé may be allowed to pump 400 gallons of water per minute from a local wellhead for an annual administrative fee of about $200. The second was an invitation from Silver Donald Cameron to join him on his Green Interview webcast for Ripple FX, a web-based media company in Little Anse, Cape Breton.

The Michigan article got me thinking about water and the invitation — which I had to decline because there are only so many hours in a day — reminded me that The Green Interview would be an excellent source of information about water, which is how I came to spend much of my weekend listening to some really interesting people discussing some really interesting, water-related things.

The challenge now is to present what I’ve learned to you in a semi-coherent manner and I’m going to do my best to give it some sort of structure, but let’s face it — it’s me we’re talking about. There will be tangents.


Water footprint

Your Water FootprintOne of the first interesting things I heard was that to make a 0.5 liter plastic water bottle requires 5 liters of water.

I heard it from environmental journalist Stephen Leahy, author of Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products.

Leahy calls the water used to produce things “hidden” or “virtual” water and the amounts he quotes in his interview with Cameron are staggering: to grow the beans for a single cup of coffee requires 140 liters; to grow and process the cotton for one shirt requires 5,000 liters; to make all the components for a cell phone takes 1,000 liters. (By the time Leahy is done, you’ve become so conscious of the water in everything around you, you start to feel like you’re living in an aquarium.)

To calculate your “water footprint,” you have to consider not just the water you use directly for drinking and cooking and washing and flushing, but all of this virtual water as well — water sourced from the countries where the goods you’ve purchased are made. As Leahy puts it:

In global trade there are tremendous rivers of water flowing from one country to another in the form of goods and foods. I think it’s a key concept for us to really understand what’s happening on our planet.

As the rivers of virtual water (in the form of goods) flow in, cash flows out — at least, from those countries wealthy enough to throw cash at their problems, like the oil-rich nations of the Middle East which “can’t grow their own food” and “don’t have enough water to produce most of their goods.” Instead, they  buy what they need from other nations or, in the case of countries like Saudi Arabia and China, they buy land in places like Africa and use it to produce food for their own markets. (Leahy says China  owns “millions and millions of hectares of land” outside its own borders, much of it on 99-year leases). And in buying or leasing the land, these countries also, effectively, buy the water.

Sometimes what’s flowing actually is water — as in California, which uses water faster than it can be replenished, faces chronic shortages and, as a result, has been importing water for 80 years to support its agriculture industry.

What’s interesting about all this in a Cape Breton context is that, unless you are running a water bottling plant out of your garage, your best bet for lowering your water consumption is to lower your consumption generally — reduce, reuse, recycle. Although this last, judging by Leahy’s entire interview, is probably the least effective because while recycling uses less water and energy than producing products from virgin materials, it still uses water and energy. And buying recycled products is still consumption.

Take Sobeys’ Compliments brand bottled water, for example. The company is as proud as punch that all of its 500 ml and 1.5 L water bottles are produced completely from recycled plastic. Sobeys purchases “most” of its private label spring and distilled water from Ice River Springs, which employs a “closed-loop recycling” process that it claims saves 23 million liters of water per year. It has made a video about it. The narrator is so excited she sounds like she might break into song at any moment:

But you only have to think about it for a moment to realize that filling a re-usable water bottle from the tap is a far better method of reducing your water footprint than buying water in 100% recycled plastic bottles.

That said, let’s talk about bottled water for a moment.


Get the lead out

Bottled water is an easy target for people concerned about water security because it is so unnecessary outside regions living under boil-water advisories or in the aftermath of natural disasters. The Council of Canadians which, under Maude Barlow, has been focused on water rights issues for years, says:

Wasting our limited groundwater on frivolous and consumptive uses such as bottled water is madness.

And if you’re thinking, “But what if I have lead in my water?” then this next bit’s for you (and it’s kind of a tangent).

Lead water pipes

Lead water pipes (Source: The Bridge)

Earlier this year, Canadian reporters and journalism students fanned out all across the country in a massive joint investigative project that discovered that some Canadians have dangerously high levels of lead in their water, a startling situation we’ve actually known about for over a decade, as the Toronto Star, a partner in the investigation, admitted:

In 2008, a comprehensive investigation funded by the Canadian Water Network pooled the efforts of top Canadian academics, municipalities and agencies from five provinces and Health Canada. Results were unequivocal and made public: Canadians were being exposed to lead levels well above existing standards in many of our schools, homes and institutions. We also identified control strategies and policies needed to lower lead at the tap, considering both short term actions (filters and corrosion control) and long-term solutions (removing all lead pipes).

These research results were widely disseminated across Canada and prompted common-sense federal drinking water guidelines from Health Canada in 2019, which included standardized sampling protocols and lowering the acceptable level of lead from 10 parts per billion to 5 ppb. These guidelines were drafted after assessing the exposure of Canadians, completing a comprehensive review of the state of the science, identifying solutions and verifying their feasibility. They are then formally reviewed and approved by all provinces and territories.

And then…nothing. Or next to nothing: drinking water regulations are a provincial responsibility and although all the provinces and territories signed on, “only Ontario” set “enforceable standards in line with the federal lead guidelines.” (Ontario, of course, had been thoroughly spooked by the E.coli outbreak in Walkerton in 2000.)

Some municipalities have made an effort to address the problem — St. John’s Newfoundland replaces lead pipes free of charge while, as the Coast reported in 2017:

Halifax Water has been working since 2013 on a plan to replace HRM’s lead service lines (LSLs)—the bit of pipe that connects distribution lines to individual properties—but the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan has galvanized those efforts, according to the utility’s 2016 annual report.

The situation in HRM isn’t anywhere as bad as Flint, Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell stresses. There are no lead pipes in our distribution network, for one. The utility also has a strong corrosion control program—unlike Flint, which is still dealing with a public health crisis after switching to corrosive river water as a drinking supply two years ago. But out of the 83,000 service lines bringing water into people’s homes in this city, Halifax Water estimates some 2,500 are made of lead.

The utility has been working since 2013 on a plan to replace those LSLs, at a cost of 
$25 million over the next 30 years.

Because the LSL is a joint responsibility of the homeowner and the HRM, and because replacing half a line is worse than not replacing it at all, the city will only replace lines when the homeowner agrees to foot half the cost — and that has proved a “big deterrent” in the capital.

The bigger issue in Nova Scotia, according to Graham Gagnon,  a professor at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Water Resource Studies, is:

“What is happening outside of Halifax?”…Halifax Water has the budget to tackle this…“Whereas, if you’re in a town that says ‘Well this is nice to have, but I also need a fire department and pay for police servicing, so I’ll put the nice-to-haves down on the list.’ That’s what happens in municipal planning, as you do expect.”

(Or “I need a second cruise ship birth and a helicopter pad,” as the case may be.)

I was curious about the situation in the CBRM so I asked and spokesperson Jillian Moore sent this reply on Wednesday:

With just over 29,000 service pipes, the CBRM Water Utility estimates that less than 1% are lead pipes. Of that number, the lead service lines in the CBRM are most commonly seen in installations that took place between 1900 and 1920.

If lead pipes are discovered during capital rebuilds or maintenance work, it is an automatic replacement of the public service line. If the lead continues onto the property line, the replacement would be the home owner’s responsibility. The Water Utility immediately notifies the owner, follows up with a letter, and works with them on the replacement process.

Luckily, there are some rather low-tech things you can do if you suspect (or know) you have lead in your water — flush the system before you drink the water or use it for cooking. You can do this by taking a shower, flushing the toilet, starting a load of laundry or just running the tap for a few minutes before you use the water. (Something I’ve been doing for years, since a potable water expert of my acquaintance told me to.)

You can also buy a filter — make sure you get the right kind, the federal water guidelines will help you — and it will remove all traces of lead from your water.

Personally, I’m determined to continue drinking tap water because otherwise, our lack of collective action will be a huge gift to the bottled water companies, and they get enough from us as it is.

Which is a perfect segue into my next topic: Nestlé.


Ice Mountain

Another reason why bottled water is an easy target is that the leading purveyor of stuff, Nestlé, strides the world like a comic book villain — taking millions of liters of water from a lake in BC without paying for it, outbidding one Ontario township for its only source of clean drinking water while continuing to extract water from another during a drought, “sucking Florida dry,infiltrating the regulatory apparatus in Maine and seeking permission to up its extraction rate from a well in Osceola, Michigan to 400 gallons per minute for $200 a year, the story that started this whole thing.

Nestlé’s actions in Ontario, where companies (excluding farmers) pay $3.71 for every million liters of groundwater used, prompted the then-Liberal government to impose a two-year moratorium on new or expanded bottled water operations while it considered stricter regulations and in 2017, to propose increasing the fee charged them to $500 per million liters.

This means bottled water plants would be treated differently from other sectors with water-taking permits, including construction, which the National Post says takes 1.39 trillion liters or 40% of all maximum permitted ground water in Ontario each year. The Post profiled Ice River Springs, the company that supplies Sobeys, noting that while it has permission take 4.6 million liters a day, it takes “less than 900 million a year” which, the paper notes, “is less than some golf courses draw from ground water in 10 days.” (Is that the National Post suggesting golf course maintenance is a frivolous use of groundwater?)

Brett Weinstein (talk) (Uploads [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

Poland Spring bottled water, one of many Nestlé brands. (Photo by Brett Weinstein (talk) CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the rationale for treating bottling companies differently may be that much of the water it bottles is permanently removed from the watershed when it’s pumped –as in, literally, trucked away from the province — as opposed to water that is recycled within the province’s hydrologic system. But that’s true for brewing companies and soft drink companies too.

Still, there’s something about Nestlé, so if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go into it in some detail about its actions in Michigan (and I am not even sure anymore if this counts as a tangent or not).

Nestlé trucks water from Osceola, Michigan (population 900) to its bottling plant in Mescota County, where it is bottled under the company’s Ice Mountain brand. Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2017 (in a piece you really should read), Caroline Winter reported that Osceola provides 40% of the water bottled at the plant while the other 60% comes from Mecosta Springs.

Inside the plant, wrote Winter:

Ten production lines snake through the space, funneling local spring water into 8-ounce to 2.5-gallon containers; most of the lines run 24/7, each pumping out 500 to 1,200 bottles per minute…

Daily, we’re looking at 3.5 million bottles potentially,” says Dave Sommer, the plant’s 41-year-old manager, shouting above the din.

When Nestlé first came to Michigan (after buying the Ice Mountain brand from Pepsi in 2000 and moving production to the state) it was permitted to pump 400 gallons per minute in Mecosta, but the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) found this volume excessive and went to court to stop it. A judge ruled against Nestlé in 2003 but the company appealed and the case dragged on another six years before the parties settled in 2009 with Nestlé accepting a 218 per minute limit.

Then in 2016, Nestlé applied to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for a permit to increase the amount of water it could withdraw from its White Pine Springs well in Osceola from 250 to 400 gallons per minute. When the permit application became public (thanks to the work of a local reporter) it provoked a serious public backlash, happening, as it did, against the backdrop of the water crisis in Flint, as Michigan Live reported:

Many of those against the permit application viewed it as the privatization of a public resource – and stood up for Flint residents who had to buy bottled water.

“It troubles me that with a $200 permit Nestle can get billions of dollars worth of profit and puts nothing back into the community or into the state treasury or into Flint,” said James Howard, an attorney from Grand Rapids. “That seems to be an issue of justice. I know that’s not what the DEQ is making its decisions on — but I think the people of Michigan need to say to our leaders: this isn’t right.”

Nestlé employs 280 people at its factory in Mecosta County, about 40 minutes from Osceola, including 50 Osceola residents, and says it spends $18 million a year in Michigan, including $2.4 million in taxes in 2016.

But according to that Bloomberg Businessweek report, Nestlé leads the bottled water industry worldwide in sales. Nestlé Waters, its Paris-based subsidiary, owns “almost 50 brands, including Perrier, S.Pellegrino, and Poland Spring.” In 2016 — the year it spent, by its own account, $18 million in Michigan — Nestlé sold $7.7 billion worth of bottled water worldwide:

…with more than $343 million of it coming from Michigan, where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line.

Faced with the generally negative public reaction to the 2016 permit application, the DMEQ increased its scrutiny, twice requesting further information from Nestlé, before ultimately approving the permit in April 2018. It was challenged, almost immediately, by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in state administrative court (part of their argument is that, even at the lower pumping level, Nestlé has already caused “adverse resource impacts” in the surrounding watershed). Final briefs in that case were to have been delivered on October 16 but a decision in the case may not be announced until mid-January 2020.

And there’s a separate court case involving a zoning dispute between Nestlé and the Township of Osceola, which has denied the company a permit it needs to build a pumping booster station to move the water it pumped by pipeline to a tanker load dock in the nearby town of Evart. Nestlé appealed the township’s decision and a county court ruled in its favor. But in January 2018, the Township Board of Trustees voted to appeal that decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals and the court agreed and set a hearing date of 2 October 2019. But if there has been any outcome from this hearing, I can’t find a record of it anywhere. And given how slowly the judicial process seems to move in Michigan, I’m guessing it will be a while before Osceola has a decision.

I realize this is an unsatisfactory place to end, but I did so much research this week, I didn’t have time to convert it all into articles — I still haven’t touched on two of the three Green Interviews I listened to — so please bear with me and we’ll pick this up in next week’s edition.