Is Connecticut's water for sale?

If Niagara Bottling or Nestlé, owner of the Poland Spring brand, came to Groton about setting up a bottling plant using the municipal water supply, Groton Utilities wouldn’t turn them away.

“We probably would be interested,” Ron Gaudet, director of the city-owned utility that supplies drinking water to 44,000 customers in Groton, Ledyard, Montville and Mystic, said last week.

“Our system was designed when Pfizer was using a half a million gallons of water per day," he said. "They’re not using the water they used to. If someone were to come in and use a lot of water, we’d be excited about that.”

The idea that a commercial bottler would want to buy large volumes of water from one of the local utilities that supplies drinking water isn’t far-fetched.

Earlier this year, the town of Bloomfield came to an agreement with Niagara, a company based in Ontario, Calif., to bottle for sale 1.8 million gallons of water per day from the public system fed by reservoirs that serve that city and 11 other Hartford-area communities.

That arrangement has raised awareness around the state that Connecticut’s ample public water supplies are attracting interest from the bottled water industry.

“Water companies are scouting around the country for cheap new sources of water,” said Donna Landerman, a Bloomfield resident who helped form Save Our Water CT after her city made what she considers a bad decision to sell water to Niagara after it builds a bottling plant there.

“I don’t think our public water supply should be turned into a commodity for large corporations,” she said.

The issue of who owns Connecticut’s water supply — the citizens of the state or the private or public utility that manages and distributes it — and who should control its sale to commercial bottlers was at the heart of a bill considered in the state Legislature this session.

The bill, which would have imposed restrictions on new deals between utilities and commercial bottlers, among other provisions, passed the state Senate but died in the House of Representatives before it came to a vote, was just the first step in bringing the issue to statewide attention, Landerman said.

“We’re not going away,” she said, adding that about 3,000 people around the state have signed up for Save Our Water CT’s email list since it was formed in March.

“The value of water around the world is skyrocketing, and we could become a target," she said. "We’re talking about a number of strategies for coming back next year with stronger legislation.”

Niagara Bottling, the California company whose deal set off the concerns that led to the bill, did not respond to phone and email messages requesting comment for this story.

According to its website, Niagara obtains the water it bottles and sells under its own name and several other brands from 20 communities around the country.

Officials at four of southeastern Connecticut’s largest water utilities — Groton Utilities, Norwich Public Utilities, the New London Water & Water Pollution Control Authority and the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority — all said they have not been approached by commercial bottlers.

Aquarion Water Co., a private firm that supplies Stonington and parts of Mystic, among other towns around the state, did not respond to a request for comment.

Spokesmen for three of the four utilities said that if they were to be approached, they’d either refuse the companies outright, or take extreme caution about considering the proposal.

“Given the size of NPU and our water supply, it is unlikely we would be approached in the future,” said Chris Riley, spokesman for the utility that supplies Norwich and surrounding towns. “It just wouldn't make sense for us.”

At the southeastern water authority, Chairman Edward Monahan said he “certainly wouldn’t be encouraging to them unless there was an overriding rationale and enough excess capacity.”

The authority oversees small water systems that tap groundwater wells to quench the thirst of 16 different communities.

Groundwater, which often is labeled as “spring water” by bottlers, is commercially desirable, he noted, but the authority's systems currently couldn’t support new large-scale users.

Further, Monahan objects to the bottled water industry on environmental grounds, because of the pollutants created in manufacturing plastic and in how plastic bottles are recycled.

On the prospect of what some call “water mining” coming to Connecticut, Monahan said he “would not like to see it as a general trend,” but noted in the many communities around the state struggling with budgets, an offer to sell municipal water could be welcome.

“These towns are under tremendous pressure to balance their budgets,” he said.

The system that serves New London and Waterford also would be wary of selling its water to a company that would bottle it and truck it out of state, said Barry Weiner, chairman of the New London water authority.

“We have a strong commitment to our service area to make sure we have supplies now and for the future,” he said. “I would not endorse sending our important water assets out of state.”

Weiner added if such an offer were to be made, it should get deliberate analysis and an agreement should only be considered that would be “equitable and responsible” and of clear benefit to current ratepayers.

At Groton Utilities, however, a commercial bottler might not encounter such wariness.

While the other local utilities did not take a position on the bill in the legislature, Gaudet, the Groton Utilities director, said his agency opposed it, following the lead of the American Water Works Association.

Commercial water bottlers, he argued, should be treated like any other manufacturing company that wants to come to the city and use large volumes of water.

Individual utilities are responsible for following limits set on maximum water sales under their permits with the state Department of Public Health, and no additional regulations are needed, he said.

“We know how to stay in compliance,” he said.

The International Bottled Water Association and the Northeast Bottled Water Association also testified against the bill.

In a joint statement, the associations said the measure would “unfairly target one user of a community’s water supply — the bottled water industry” and “remove the current autonomy that municipal water systems have to make decisions based on local circumstances, and it could cause economic hardship to cities and the state.”

At the Connecticut Water Works Association, a trade association for water utilities, Executive Director Elizabeth Gara said the bill had several major flaws.

One of the major problems, she said, was that it would have changed the scope of the State Water Plan just getting underway, causing delays at a critical time.

The plan, being created by a council of four state agencies, is charged with developing a long-overdue comprehensive plan about how to manage Connecticut’s water resources both for public needs and wildlife, Gara said.

She also doesn’t believe the state should shut the door on more commercial bottlers coming to Connecticut.

“We didn’t take a position specific to water bottling,” she said. “But when a utility has sufficient supplies, I don’t think it’s fair to have the utility make a value judgment about what kinds of businesses should be supported.”

Under current state law, a public water system can sell to any private customer without a special permit, according to Maura Downes, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, which regulates drinking water.

“If a water bottling company like Poland Spring wanted to build a plant near a public water supply, hook up to that system, and use that water to bottle and sell, that company would be considered a customer of the public water system, just like any other customer,” she said.

“There would be no additional permits or approvals needed to have that company as a customer,” she added.

Lori Brown, executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, is among those vowing to work to change that, believing that "there is no such thing as excess capacity" when it comes to public water supplies.

She fears that without additional controls on the industry, there will be more “water grabs” like that of Niagara in Bloomfield.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Water is the new gold, and water bottling is a huge, extractive industry.”

j.benson@theday.com

More information:

For an analysis of the bill proposed in the state Legislature this session that dealt with commercial water bottlers and the State Water Plan, visit: https://www.cga.ct.gov/2016/BA/2016HB-05540-R010754-BA.htm.

 

 

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