Trickle-Down Theory | Left Field | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published September 25, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

The commodification of water is shaping up to be one of tomorrow's hot-button issues. It seems every day brings another story of water shortages, droughts and skirmishes among the haves and have-nots. In fact, the dichotomy between the world's dry and wet areas is so bad that Ismail Serageldin, the vice president of the World Bank, has declared, "The wars of the next century will be about water."

If that's the case, Vermont could come out looking a lot like the Saudi Arabia of water. With a low population base, abundant sources of clean groundwater and major metropolitan centers within trucking or piping distance, Vermont is literally awash in what many are beginning to call "blue gold."

Long considered a human right and natural resource, water is increasingly viewed as a product. Bottled H20 is touted as the fastest-growing segment of the "beverage" industry, as evidenced by its aggressive adoption by such behemoths as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sales of bottled water have skyrocketed from a tiny industry in the 1970s to a $22-billion-a-year bonanza today.

In the fascinating new book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, authors Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke spill forth some start-ling facts about the state of the world's water supplies. They report that global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years and more than one billion people currently lack access to fresh drinking water. If current trends persist, they argue, "the demand for fresh water is expected to rise by 56 percent more than is currently available" by the year 2025.

Potential scenarios are troubling when you consider many of the world's governments, like Canada, have already started allowing global corporations to begin monopolizing fresh water supplies.

"Experience shows that selling water on the open market does not address the needs of the poor, thirsty people," write Barlow and Clarke. "On the contrary, privatized water is delivered to those who can pay for it, such as wealthy cities and individuals and water-intensive industries."

While no corporations are coming forward yet in Vermont to propose pipelines that would siphon our water to Boston or New York City, bottled-water corporations are springing up throughout the state. The biggest by far is Vermont Pure Springs, a Randolph-based water corporation that grossed nearly $70 million last year by packaging water from a single Vermont spring. According to Bruce MacDonald, chief financial officer at Vermont Pure, the corporation is expected to bottle 40 million gallons of water this year alone.

"We're the eighth-largest bottled-water corporation in the U.S.," boasts MacDonald. "And we're always looking for more spring sites in Vermont."

Vermont Pure's expansion plans have recently stirred up controversy among neighbors who object to the truck traffic and noise that would be created by the additional production.

But more harmful effects relating to Vermont Pure's extraction and commodification of water are its potential impact on groundwater supplies and aquatic life in the streams and stream-fed rivers. The Agency of Natural Re-sources only recently began watching Blaisdell Brook, Vermont Pure's corporate water source.

"It took a while to get a good monitoring system in place," the ANR's Brian Fitzgerald told Seven Days, noting that low water levels in the brook forced several halts in production this summer. From 1993 — when Vermont Pure began bottling water — until 2001, the brook essentially went unchecked.

No one is suggesting that Vermont Pure is breaking any rules. It's just that there don't seem to be many rules controlling it. Barlow and Clarke report, for example, that the bottled-water business is among the "least regulated industries in the world." And, given the world water situation, Vermont Pure could be well-positioned when it comes to future corporate interest in the state's "liquid assets."

It would be wise for Vermonters to heed the warning from Barlow and Clarke and begin grappling with the thorny issue of protecting our water resources. If, as they suggest, water flows uphill to money in today's world, we could all wind up high and dry.

In brief: If you blinked and missed the public comment period on the proposed expansion of the Vermont Egg Farm in Highgate, you're not alone. On September 10, the Vermont Department of Agriculture announced that the egg farm's application to expand by 135,000 chickens was complete and the public had 10 — yes, 10 — days to file comments with the department. Even if you did manage to slip in under their tight deadline, it doesn't appear ag officials will be giving the comments much of their time. Ag Commissioner Leon Graves announced that he'd be making his decision on the application by October 9... Plans to continue with the $160-million Circ highway hit a snag earlier this month when an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requested an update on the project's 16-year-old environmental impact study. Opponents of the proposed 16-mile suburban highway called the news "significant."