Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte

C h a p t e r 1


N A BALMY fall afternoon, with the maples at their flaming peak and the white ashes shading to yellow, Tom Brennan, natural resources manager for Nestlé Waters North America, drives down a gravel road in western Maine. He parks his truck in front of a small stone cottage topped by a pitched green roof. The building wouldn’t look out of place in the Adirondacks. But its green wooden door opens not to reveal a rag rug and a woodstove but yet another door—a seriouslooking door made of thick steel that can be breached only with the right combination of keys, codes, and security cards. Behind it are cameras and a motion detector. Are they guarding a gold reserve or an arsenal? No, they superintend an assemblage of stainless steel pipes, gauges, levers, and a device called a pig, about the size and shape of a boat bumper, that’s periodically forced through the pipes with water pressure to clean and disinfect. The linoleum floor is spotless.

“Any sort of intrusion into the pump house,” Brennan says, “and the water automatically shuts off.” The pump house aggregates water from five boreholes, or wells, located not far away at the bottom of a gentle valley, and sends it shooting through an underground pipe and, a mile to the north, into the largest water- bottling plant in the country. When the water comes back out, it’s in plastic containers labeled Poland Spring.

I take a good look around, not really appreciating the engineering that goes into such a place, and then we turn to leave. I am eager to see the water, the place where it springs from the earth. Brennan fumbles with a security card and keys, then we continue downhill through a young forest. Turning a bend, we come upon a man in casual clothes walking rapidly, a roll of duct tape in his hand. His black Lab darts into the trees, then back out and in again. When he hears the truck, the hiker glances furtively over his shoulder, then slips into the roadside bracken.

“He sure disappeared quick,” Brennan says, without emotion. Though the fifteen- hundred- acre property is private, Nestlé, a Swiss- owned conglomerate and the largest food- pro cessing company in the world, isn’t strict about trespassing. The road is gated but no fence lines the property. If hunters call first to make arrangements, they are welcome. But it isn’t hunting season now.

At the bottom of the valley we park near five matching well houses, smaller versions of the stone building uphill. We walk into the woods and down a staircase flanked by white pine and larch. Where the slope bottoms out, tussock sedges line a shallow, sandy- bottomed raceway—narrow canals lined with boards. “The stream feeds into a trout hatchery,” Brennan explains, pointing toward a shed in the distance. I walk along the watercourse, looking for springs. The ground is soft, and the water bubbles here and there through fallen leaves and watercress. Finally I see what I am looking for. I squat in a patch of swamp dewberry and contemplate a tiny boil of water.

“Can I drink it?” I ask. Brennan shifts his weight and hesitates before saying, “If you want to.” If I expect encouragement, it isn’t forthcoming.

Filled with a sense of moment, I bend and dip my hand into the water, which appears black. I check to make sure there is nothing obvious swimming in my palm, then close my eyes and sip. “So this is it,” I think. “I’m drinking from the source.”

The water tastes good to me. It is cold—forty- five degrees according to Brennan—and it is fresh. It has no smell. Beyond that, I can say only that I feel privileged to be drinking straight from the ground, a rare possibility in this age of ubiquitous animal- borne diseases and pollution. I can choose from nearly a thousand types of bottled water on store shelves, but I can’t, with infinitesimally few exceptions, drink from a naturally occurring body of water. Magically appearing from inside the earth, springwater has always had a powerful mystique. Civilizations have fought over such resources.

But I’m not feeling any mystique right now. What I’m mostly thinking as I sip anew is that this simple substance, rising in a rill not five hundred feet upstream from the Shy Beaver trout hatchery, is the driving force behind a multimillion- dollar plant that directs three hundred million gallons of water a year into the farthest reaches of New En gland, New York, and parts west. I try to stay focused on the moment, the elemental and pure (at least until it flows through Shy Beaver) nature of this liquid, but I can’t help thinking that this water is so much more: a signature product of the world’s largest food corporation, a flash point for activists environmental, religious, and legal, and either the biggest scam in marketing history or a harbinger of far worse things to come.


Brennan doesn’t hurry me; he doesn’t ask what I think of his water. He explains the morphology of the earth: the way glaciers retreated from this part of Maine thirteen thousand years ago and, in the pro cess, formed deep beds of sand and gravel that expertly filtered the water. He shows me some test wells along the raceway and explains that water pumped through boreholes, the wells inside those little stone buildings, can be labeled spring if it has substantially the same chemical makeup as the actual spring, if it comes from the same geologic stratum as the spring, and if a hydraulic connection between the two can be proved. “And we did that,” Brennan says.

We take a look inside one of the well houses—more security cameras, more spotless linoleum and gleaming pipes—then Brennan locks up and we head back up to the bottling plant. We’re almost out of the woods when suddenly an electronic alarm shrieks through the silent forest. Rising from the valley floor, it drives crows from their treetops and brings my hands to my ears. Whoop, whoop, whoop—ten nerve- jangling blasts in a row, then a pause, then ten more. Brennan stomps on the brake and speed- dials the bottling plant, a look of mild panic on his face. Waiting for advice from HQ, he turns toward me and says, “You know all those caps getting screwed onto bottles that we just saw?” It’s a blur to me, those half- liter containers moving around the plant at warp speed, more than five million containers a day, but I nod. “Well, all those bottles just stopped.” Maybe the alarm has something to do with that guy, the one with the duct tape and the Labrador? I ask. Or maybe security is simply testing the system? It isn’t for Brennan to say.

“Why would someone want to mess with a pump house?” I ask as Brennan puts the truck back in gear.

“You’d be surprised,” he says tersely. In 2003, operatives for the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) placed four incendiary devices inside a pump station in Michigan that supplied water to a Nestlé bottling plant. The devices failed to ignite, but ELF made its point: the substation was “stealing water,” the group stated in a communiqué. Clean water, it continued, “is one of the most fundamental necessities, and no one can be allowed to privatize it, commodify it, and try and sell it back to us.”

Is that what’s happening here? I’d come up to the town of Hollis to see how the water gets out of the famous Maine woods and into the skinny bottles with the green labels. They are ubiquitous where I live. You can’t walk a block in New York City without seeing a bottle in someone’s hand, their baby stroller, or bike cage, spilling from the corner litter baskets or crushed flat and gray, ratlike, in the gutters. Nationwide, we discard thirty to forty billion of these containers a year. The bottles, and the trucks that deliver them, are haunting me. Poland Spring is the bestselling springwater in the nation, even in a city with some of the best tap water in the world. Everyone is drinking the stuff, and other waters like it. In the West, it’s Arrowhead and Calistoga; in the South Central region, Ozarka; in the Midwest, Ice Mountain; in the mid- Atlantic, Deer Park; and in the Southeast, Zephyrhills—all owned by Nestlé, a company with estimated profits of $7.46 billion in 2006. Pepsi- Cola and Coke are bottling water too, and making billions.

Why this turn against the tap? And how had we gotten to the point where activists are sneaking bombs into pump houses— infrastructure devoted not to oil, but water? It isn’t just Michigan: citizens in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, California, New Hampshire, Texas, Florida, and, yes, even Maine, are in arms against groundwater pumping for bottling. Legal scholars are loudly debating water rights; the United Church of Canada has called for a North American boycott of the stuff, so has a group called Food and Water Watch. The Franciscan Federation declared to the Environmental Protection Agency that access to safe and clean water is “a free gift from God,” and the National Co ali tion of American Nuns adopted a resolution, in the fall of 2006, that asked members to avoid drinking bottled water unless absolutely necessary. Their issue? Privatization of something so essential to life is immoral. An antiglobalization or ga ni za tion was traveling the country offering blind taste tests of bottled water versus tap. Their point—tap is pretty good—never fails to make the news.

Still, every week a new bottled water—offering the stuff neat or with “beneficial” additives (vitamins, herbs, laxatives, nicotine, caffeine, oxygen, appetite suppressants, aspirin, skin enhancers, or healing mantras)—hits the market. U.S. sales of bottled water leaped 170 percent between 1997 and 2006, from $4 billion to $10.8 billion. Globally, bottled water is a $60- billion- a-year business. In 1987, U.S. per capita consumption of the stuff was 5.7 gallons; by 1997 it was 12.1 gallons; and in 2006, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, it was 27.6. Sales of bottled water have already surpassed sales of beer and milk in the United States and by 2011 are, by some analysts, expected to surpass soda, of which Americans drink more than fifty gallons per person a year.

I’ve come to Maine because it seems an unlikely battleground. The state receives about forty- three inches of rain a year (about the same as other states in the region) and has a population of slightly more than one million, among whom Poland Spring is a familiar, and at one time beloved, face. The company has been bottling water from the town of Poland since 1845. Legal history recorded no objections when Hiram Ricker began to sell water from his family farm there, though a Portland newspaper, anticipating the nuns and the Canadians, scoffed at “selling something that God gave everyone for free.” In recent years Poland Spring, which was bought by Perrier in 1980 and then Nestlé in 1992, has expanded its reach into other Maine aquifers, and the objections have been hard to miss.

The epicenter of Maine’s water wars is Fryeburg, about an hour to the north of Hollis. “So what happened up there?” I ask Brennan, for the third time. We’re sitting at the conference table in the bottling plant, which was built atop a former potato farm. The alarm out in the woods had, we just learned, been an electronic glitch—a relief to everyone. Now Brennan glances at me, and despite his efforts to stay on message, to stay upbeat, I can sense the man’s fatigue. “Yeah,” he says, with a downward cast of his eyes. “The infamous Fryeburg situation.” He sighs. “It got complicated up there.”

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