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Pressure builds over bottled water

Towns around the U.S. fight firms that want to soak up a local resource.

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But many say the greater story – about a growing world population of more than 6.5 billion faced with a limited supply of fresh water – is, in fact, just beginning.

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Experts not directly involved in the Chaffee County situation point to it as evidence of rising sensitivity to water issues everywhere. They cite a growing number of disagreements between communities and bottled-water firms around the US – in Maine, California, Florida, and Michigan, among other places – as evidence.

“There is a growing interest in water as a whole [and] growing scarcity in the Western United States,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit that does research and policy analysis in the areas of environment and sustainable development. “And when people pay more attention, it sort of makes it harder to do the things [bottled water companies] used to do without any opposition.”

These companies have now become the focus of campaigns against bottled water in general. Organizations like Corporate Accountability International and the Environmental Working Group rail against bottled water for a number of reasons, the environmental impact of plastics among them. (Lauerman points to Nestlé’s new ecoshape bottles, which, he says, use 30 percent less plastic than most.) The groups also argue that consumption of bottled water – paying for something that’s already cheaply available – leads to neglect of municipal water infrastructure, to everyone’s detriment.

The US Conference of Mayors has urged cities to stop buying water and has called for an investigation into how much the industry costs taxpayers. (By one estimate, 40 percent of bottled water comes from municipal sources, not springs.)

All of this opposition has had some impact. San Francisco and Seattle, among other cities, have prohibited city offices from buying bottled water. Maine is now considering a penny-a-gallon bottled water tax. High-end restaurants in Los Angeles and New York have stopped serving bottled water, a once-easy moneymaker, to avoid “ungreen” reputations. And in August, Bundanoon, Australia – population 2,500 – became the first town in the world to prohibit the sale of bottled water. A proposed bottled-water operation prompted the all-out ban.