Washington state on verge of tightening the tap for new bottled water plants

Feb 27, 2020

Craig Jasmer's family and his neighbors cherish the peace and quiet of their homes in the Cascade foothills near the small town of Randle, Washington. The Cowlitz River flows through their valley past green pastures and snow-capped mountains. The scene would make a fetching label on a bottle of alpine spring water, which is almost what happened to the residents' dismay.

"You can see, obviously standing here, the beauty," Jasmer said with an ironic chuckle. "I mean, put that on a brochure and it looks exactly like what they sell."

Last year, the Crystal Geyser spring water company, known formally as CG Roxane, bought land and drilled test wells for a planned bottling plant across the street from the rural subdivision where Jasmer has a home. Jasmer then co-founded an opposition group, the Lewis County Water Alliance, which just succeeded in killing the large-scale bottled water project.

This is the latest proposed water bottling plant in the Pacific Northwest to succumb to community opposition. It has happened recently elsewhere -- in Cascade Locks, Oregon, in Goldendale, Washington, and near Mount Shasta, California.

Now, the uproar in Lewis County has pushed the Washington Legislature to the verge of closing the tap for water permits for new water bottling plants statewide. Business groups are mounting an 11th-hour push to stop what they consider to be an overreaction in Olympia that they say could cost jobs and unfairly tarnishes a healthy product.

"People were really concerned about their wells going dry," Jasmer explained. "You can't just put a water bottling plant out here. We're all on private wells. You know, we're irrigating. We're farming. We're growing timber. You can't take our water from out here."

In this view of the upper Cowlitz River basin, the CG Roxane property is at center along the river. Some neighbors who opposed the proposed bottling plant live in homes to the upper left and rear.
Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network

Community members convinced the Lewis County Commission to change the county development code to forbid bottled water production in rural zones. Even though the neighbors claimed victory after Monday's unanimous commission vote, they're not stopping. They have repeatedly traveled to the state Capitol to urge passage of a statewide law. Pending legislation would prevent new commercial water bottling plants from getting permits to pump groundwater or local springs.

"I'm afraid for my neighbors in other counties across the state that they might have to go through the same thing," said Jasmer, who works professionally as a construction project manager. "This has been eight months of turmoil and stress."

The battle launched from the small town in southwest Washington has now drawn major business groups to the state Capitol in opposition. In addition, national environmental groups concerned about plastic pollution or the "privatization" of water have joined in. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe also showed up to support protection of aquifers vulnerable to depletion.

However, the big water bottler whose plans in Randle sparked this row, Crystal Geyser, has neither been seen nor heard from.

At the state legislature, trade associations and a homegrown water brand are doing the talking for the industry.

"We are concerned by legislation that mischaracterizes bottled water as 'detrimental to the public interest,' since so much of what we do -- providing good jobs to Washington residents, increasing the state's export economy and supporting community organizations -- is in the public interest," testified Andrew Haring, the VP and general counsel at Talking Rain, an established sparkling water company based east of Seattle.

"Also, given our current growth rate it is conceivable that we could apply for additional (water) permits in the future," Haring said. "If this bill is enacted into law, it could have a substantial negative impact on our ability to expand and provide additional jobs to Washington residents."

Despite periodic controversy around various aspects of bottled water, consumption of the product has increased steadily nationwide for the past decade. Financial analysts project further increases in demand, thus creating interest by producers to build new plants, ideally near population centers.

Consumers looking for a healthier beverage have driven up sales of bottled water in the U.S steadily over the past decade.
Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network

The government affairs director for the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington stepped to the mic soon after Haring during a public hearing Wednesday in front of the state House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Jan Himebaugh explained she was there because the construction and housing developers group is "afraid of creep."

"We are worried that at some point there is going to be a decision that residential development in rural areas is no longer in the public interest because we're using the water code to stop development and growth that we don't like a particular type of," Himebaugh said. "This is a big, sort of slippery slope for us."

The proposed water bottling curtailment could be watered down in the days ahead given the strong business opposition. If passed as now drafted, Washington would get the most restrictive state-level water supply rules for this industry in the country. Bottlers could still buy water from municipal utilities for production of bottled water, as some already do.

The bottled water bill started out as nominally bipartisan in Olympia, but it is now splitting along party lines. The measure passed the Democrat-led state Senate on a 28-20 vote, with all Republicans voting no. The lead sponsor is state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat from Seattle.

"Is it in the public interest to be in the business of export of water around the world is one part of it," Carlyle said at the initial presentation of his bill. "The other part of it is how do we wean ourselves from the addiction to plastic and how do we think more responsibly about the use of water itself."

Another state senator cast an eye-catching vote. Republican John Braun, who represents Lewis County, originally signed on as the first co-sponsor of the legislation (SB 6278) to prohibit the issuance of new water rights to commercial water bottlers. But when the bill came to the Senate floor in mid-February, Braun stood up to urge the body to vote no.

"I prefer it when issues like this are addressed locally, without involvement from the state level, and the Lewis County Water Alliance and Lewis County government have worked together to address the water-bottling concerns quite effectively so far," explained Braun in an emailed statement. "Because efforts to refine the bill were rejected when we debated it on the floor of the Senate, I’m left thinking that local control is still preferable and that this bill may be more about plastic bottles and an industry, and less about the water."

In order to reach the governor's desk, the bottled water legislation needs to pass the state House of Representatives before the scheduled end of the 2020 session on March 12.

CG Roxane's water right application to the Washington State Department of Ecology, which said it wanted to pump up to 400 gallons per minute for the proposed bottling plant at its Randle property, is still listed as "active." The plant would have created an estimated 20-30 jobs. The California-based company did not reply to several messages this week seeking clarification of its future plans.

Local opposition previously stopped Nestlé from building a $50 million water bottling plant at Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge. In the midst of that controversy, Nestlé also scouted locations in Enumclaw, Waitsburg and Goldendale, Washington, getting a quick thumbs down in all of those locations when opponents got word of the plans and then besieged the respective city councils.

Siskiyou County in northern California has also been a flashpoint for controversy, involving at various times Nestlé, Crystal Geyser and smaller startup water bottlers. Water company prospectors were attracted to the flanks of Mount Shasta by the availability of water and by local officials eager to replace lost timber and mining jobs.

Update, Feb. 28, 3:00 p.m.: The proposed statewide restriction on new groundwater and spring water withdrawals for bottled water production is dead for the 2020 session. The measure failed to advance out of a Democrat-led Washington state House committee by a Friday afternoon deadline. No vote was taken or public explanation given, but disappointed proponents of the legislation attributed their loss to heavy lobbying against it by beverage industry interests.