‘PRE­CIOUS COM­MOD­ITY’

Penn­syl­va­nia charges bot­tled wa­ter com­pa­nies next to noth­ing to ex­tract from state wa­ters

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Iain Old­man

A Nestlé Wa­ters rep­re­sen­ta­tive stood be­fore an­gry res­i­dents in a north­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia fire hall ear­lier this sum­mer and ad­mit­ted de­feat.

He told the El­dred Town­ship zon­ing board — and more than 100 res­i­dents who at­tended — that the multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion he rep­re­sents was with­draw­ing its per­mit to drill for wa­ter un­der­neath the town.

The con­ces­sion ended a year­long bat­tle be­tween the world’s largest player in the bot­tled wa­ter mar­ket and the town. Up un­til that day, the res­i­dents were out­raged that Nestlé could po­ten­tially re­move 73 mil­lion gal­lons a year from the aquifer in their com­mu­nity, bring­ing in huge prof­its with­out any over­sight and at hardly any cost.

Their story drew na­tional me­dia head­lines like, “How This Small Town is Win­ning the War

Against Nestlé” and “A Penn­syl­va­nia Town Fights Preda­tory Wa­ter Ex­trac­tion.”

An­other Penn­syl­va­nia wa­ter story that drew na­tional at­ten­tion hap­pened seven years ago, when the Cooper Springs Trout Hatch­ery wanted to ex­pand into the bot­tled wa­ter busi­ness and pump 100,000 gal­lons a day out of Lau­rel Hill Creek in Som­er­set County.

Lau­rel Hill Creek, a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for trout fish­er­man, was al­ready be­ing drained by wa­ter with­drawals faster than it could re­plen­ish it­self.

It had been listed among the 10 most en­dan­gered rivers in Amer­ica as roughly 2 mil­lion gal­lons con­tin­ued to be taken from it ev­ery day. It was so low that a fam­ily told a lo­cal news­pa­per they put their picnic ta­ble on dry land in the mid­dle of the creek bed.

Krissy Kasser­man of the

con­ser­va­tion group Youghiogheny River­keeper said the stream couldn’t han­dle more wa­ter with­drawals. She said wa­ter lev­els in nearby pri­vate wells was drop­ping and the stream’s trout pop­u­la­tion was be­ing com­pro­mised.

The Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion [DEP] de­nied Cooper Springs’ ap­pli­ca­tion for a per­mit to with­draw wa­ter from the creek.

These are some of the most prom­i­nent at­tempts of bot­tled wa­ter ex­trac­tion across the state.

Many have suc­ceeded, though. Bot­tled wa­ter com­pa­nies have with­drawn 3.5 bil­lion gal­lons from the state’s wa­ter­sheds from 2005 through 2014. Penn­syl­va­nia gets very lit­tle in re­turn.

The state’s rich wa­ter­sheds are a tar­get for fresh­wa­ter with­drawals, and now state leg­is­la­tors are con­sid­er­ing pro­pos­als to start charg­ing more for this nat­u­ral re­source.

Missed op­por­tu­ni­ties

As it stands, Penn­syl­va­nia only makes money from wa­ter with­drawals through per­mit and ap­pli­ca­tion fees.

The state charges a $25 ap­pli­ca­tion fee for sur­face wa­ter with­drawal from rivers, lakes and streams. Bot­tled wa­ter com­pa­nies of­ten ei­ther drill for ground­wa­ter and pay a $750 one-time fee or buy wa­ter from a mu­nic­i­pal source and pay a $300 fee.

That’s all that Penn­syl­va­nia col­lects.

Other states charge an­nual li­cens­ing fees or ex­trac­tion fees on the amount of wa­ter with­drawn.

Of the 18 states that have li­cens­ing fees, Ver­mont charges the most at $1,390 per year, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­port by the Ver­mont Nat­u­ral Re­sources Coun­cil. Other states range from $20 in Louisiana to as much as $1,335 in Cal­i­for­nia. Maine and Ne­vada also charge ad­di­tional an­nual fees be­yond their li­cens­ing fees.

Twelve states charge ex­trac­tion fees based on how much wa­ter is used, and an­other dozen states charge a

flat ex­trac­tion fee.

Even though the DEP doesn’t col­lect with­drawal fees, in­ter­state river basin com­mis­sions do. In both the Delaware River and Susquehanna River basins, parts of which run through Penn­syl­va­nia, the com­mis­sions col­lect fees from com­pa­nies ex­tract­ing from their wa­ter­sheds.

The Delaware River Basin Com­mis­sion re­ported rev­enues of more than $3 mil­lion from wa­ter with­drawal fees in 2014. In the same year, the Susquehanna River Basin Com­mis­sion re­ported more than $8 mil­lion in fee rev­enue.

The com­mis­sions use that money on river restora­tion and main­te­nance projects. How­ever, the money they col­lect can be spent across any part of the Susquehanna or Delaware river basins, not just in Penn­syl­va­nia.

In West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, the Ohio River Val­ley Wa­ter San­i­ta­tion Com­mis­sion does not col­lect wa­ter with­drawal fees.

A ‘pre­cious com­mod­ity’

The state Leg­is­la­ture is as­sess­ing whether it should join roughly half the coun­try that’s charg­ing more for bot­tled wa­ter ex­trac­tion.

State Rep. Garth Everett, R-84, of Ly­coming/Union coun­ties, wants the state to study the ben­e­fits of es­tab­lish­ing fees for wa­ter with­drawal. Everett’s res­o­lu­tion would have the Gen­eral Assem­bly look at how other states col­lect fees, how much com­pa­nies should be charged and an es­ti­mate on how much rev­enue the state can ex­pect from wa­ter with­drawal fees.

The res­o­lu­tion would also cre­ate a Wa­ter Qual­ity Im­prove­ment Fund, which would fund wa­ter restora­tion and con­ser­va­tion projects across the state.

“We’re faced with a num­ber of wa­ter qual­ity is­sues, but we don’t have a fund­ing source for it,” Everett said.

Everett told Pub­lic-Source that his res­o­lu­tion to con­duct a sur­vey has al­ready re­ceived push­back from the Penn­syl­va­nia Cham­ber of Com­merce, which said new costs would get passed on to the con­sumer. The sur­vey could take up to a year to com­plete.

An­other piece of leg­is­la­tion, proposed by state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-96, of Lan­caster County, would es­tab­lish an ex­trac­tion fee on com­pa­nies that use more than 10,000 gal­lons a day. It would not im­pact mu­nic­i­pal or agri­cul­tural wa­ter users.

Un­der Sturla’s leg­is­la­tion, a bot­tled wa­ter com­pany would pay $1,000 to with­draw 1 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter.

Sturla es­ti­mates that his wa­ter with­drawal fee would gen­er­ate $375 mil­lion an­nu­ally much of which would go to wa­ter-re­lated pro­grams and agen­cies.

The bill could also cre­ate a $3 bil­lion bond “for the pro­tec­tion of wa­ter­sheds, wa­ter re­sources, wa­ter en­vi­ron­ments, fresh wa­ter sources, the fur­ther­ing of wa­ter con­ser­va­tion and other wa­ter-re­lated en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives.”

Penn­syl­va­nia has, by far, the high­est num­ber of im­paired wa­ter­ways in the na­tion. There are close to

7,000 wa­ter­ways in Penn­syl­va­nia that don’t meet the wa­ter qual­ity stan­dards.

“As wa­ter be­comes a more pre­cious com­mod­ity, I think peo­ple will look to it as a rev­enue source and pre­serve it,” Sturla said.

Though the bot­tled wa­ter in­dus­try draws the ire of res­i­dents near proposed sites and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, their wa­ter with­drawals ac­tu­ally ac­counted for less than one-sixth of 1 per­cent of all the wa­ter with­drawn in the past 10 years, ac­cord­ing to a PublicSource anal­y­sis of data from the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

Most of the 3.5 bil­lion gal­lons pumped by bot­tled wa­ter com­pa­nies came from un­der­ground or mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sources. Only 24 mil­lion gal­lons came from sur­face wa­ter such as creeks, rivers or lakes.

The bot­tled wa­ter in­dus­try is dif­fer­ent from in­dus­trial users in one sig­nif­i­cant way. In­dus­trial wa­ter gets with­drawn, used, and most of it is re­turned to the wa­ter­shed. Bot­tled wa­ter is taken and rarely re­turned.

Un­der Sturla’s bill, the bot­tled wa­ter in­dus­try in Penn­syl­va­nia would have paid a lit­tle more than $400,000 in fees in 2014, ac­cord­ing to a PublicSource anal­y­sis.

“I don’t think bot­tled wa­ter should be ex­empt [from House Bill 2114] be­cause here’s some­one mak­ing a profit, us­ing a re­source owned by the cit­i­zens of Penn­syl­va­nia,” Sturla said.

Sturla doesn’t ex­pect his bill to breeze through the Gen­eral Assem­bly, ei­ther. The Leg­is­la­ture could al­ways point to Everett’s res­o­lu­tion as the safer ap­proach and de­cide to ta­ble House Bill 2114.

How­ever, Sturla said, “At some point in time we can’t keep giv­ing away our nat­u­ral re­sources for free.”

PO­CONO RECORD FILE PHOTO

Dr. An­nette Vazquez of El­dred Town­ship ad­dresses a ques­tion to a Delaware River Basin Com­mis­sion rep­re­sen­ta­tive dur­ing a Q&A Jan. 20 about the Nestlé plan to ex­tract wa­ter for its Deer Park bot­tled wa­ter brand.

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