Bottling Flathead’s Water…Think Again

It is imperative that we protect our water, not only for us now, but for generations to come

By Todd Schlapfer

In addition to the potential disruption of the ecological integrity of our Flathead Valley aquifer, we cannot ignore the environmental impact other aspects of the Montana Artesian Water (MAW) Company will have, such as the pollution, energy expenditure and damage plastic water bottles can do the land surface, lakes, rivers and oceans.

Let me back up a bit.

Our human biology is composed of at least 70 percent water. Water is the most essential element to life as a human being. It’s no different for our planet Earth. Although about 70 percent of our planet’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is potable. All but 1.7 percent of that is ice, the rest is salt water.  That leaves about 0.8 percent of all the water on Earth as drinkable. Approximately 0.7 percent of that fresh water is underground.

Unlike ever before, we now place tremendous demand upon potable water, perhaps greater than nature’s ability to replenish. If this demand continues there are projections that in less than two decades over 5 billion people will be living in regions where basic needs for drinking, cooking and sanitation will falter. A growing number of diseases are the result of contaminated, toxic water.  As much as one-third of our planet’s population lacks effective sanitation. This simply can’t continue. There is no substitute for fresh, clean water – like we have here in the Flathead Valley.

In order to fully appreciate the impact upon our community and our indigenous natural resource of water, we must understand the entire economic and environmental footprint of a water bottling operation. An Environmental Impact Study is fundamental to that understanding. An operation of the magnitude proposed by the MAW Company cannot dismiss the importance of establishing an EIS for realizing the risks and making the right decision.

Studies of water bottling operations are now available. We know how much energy it takes to produce bottled water in plastic.  It takes oil to make plastic bottles; it took at least 32-54 million barrels of oil in 2007. Drilling and fracking for oil uses a substantial amount of ground water that ends up contaminated. It also requires energy for bottle manufacturing, cleaning, filling and capping, sealing, transportation, packaging, refrigeration, etc. It takes not only lots of oil to make plastic bottles, it also takes extra water. It takes an average of 2 liters of water to make 1 liter of drinking water. The MAW Company says it will be bottling 191.6 million gallons of water annually. Add the potential amount of water for processing those bottles and we have as much as 383.2 million gallons. The content of that water and where that extra water ends up has yet to be accounted for. It takes over 2,000 times more energy to make and fill plastic water bottles than it takes to make tap water.

We now have enough history of water bottling operations that cause people, states, national parks, schools, etc. to question the economic and environmental cost of allowing water bottling operations to continue, even in drought-stricken regions. MAW Company’s proposed operation of 1.22 billion plastic bottles per year is no small endeavor, enlarged even more knowing that all of that water will be leaving the Flathead … as a commodity – as an exported commodity.

Unfortunately, we recover only about 5-10 percent of the plastics we produce. The rest ends up in landfills, lakes, rivers and oceans. The MAW Company will be using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for their plastic bottles. This is a chemical compound composed of many chemicals that can contaminate plants, animals and microscopic life as it leaches into soils, rivers, lakes and oceans, not to mention the generation of tons of carbon dioxide. The amount of plastic found that washed ashore in 2010 was enough to cover every inch of coast line on our planet.

Consider this: the enlarging clusters of ocean gyres (a network of circulating currents that accumulate ocean debris, e.g. plastic). There are 5 known large gyres circulating in our oceans, the largest in the North Pacific now greater than twice the size of Texas. An estimated 11 millions tons of floating plastic covers nearly 5 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of ocean species are threatened by plastic pollution, not to mention the health of the ocean itself. We depend upon the ocean for food and climate. If the oceans die, what happens to us?

While it may seem that fresh bottled water is a smart economic investment, the potential impact and cost to the environment, including our invaluable Flathead natural resources, surpasses any profit. Our kids and generations to come will inherit that impact and cost.

We now live in a world where human intelligence and conscientiousness about how we impact the natural world is a determinant force for our destiny. The Flathead Valley is the treasury of a precious water resource. It is imperative that we protect it, not only for us now, but for generations to come.

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