A proposal by Niagara Bottling to build a processing plant in the Town of Ulster and purchase water from Kingston’s municipal system has touched off this autumn’s biggest local controversy, with hundreds of area residents packing meetings over the last three weeks to protest the deal.
To some opponents, bottled water is seen as an ecological disaster. Others worry that meeting Niagara’s demand for up to 1.75 million gallons a day will overstress and deplete the city’s Cooper Lake watershed in Woodstock.
But interviews with municipal officials in three communities which host Niagara plants — and one which rejected a bid by Niagara competitor Nestlé to build a plant — reveal a range of experiences. In some communities, the company was lauded for helping to offset infrastructure costs, but in others it was bitter feuds and legal action.
In Groveland, Fla., population 7,900, local officials first welcomed a proposal to by Niagara to build a bottling plant in an industrial park just outside the city and buy water from the municipal supply. The welcome turned into resistance after Niagara learned that Groveland did not have the permits needed to sell the required amount of water and instead sought and received its own water use permit from a regional water authority. Groveland sued, sparking a three-year legal battle that ended in 2011 when the town conceded that it could no longer keep up the fight and agreed to pay Niagara $1.35 million for legal expenses and lost business. Groveland City Manager Redmond Jones said fallout from the controversy was just beginning to abate.
“At one time we wouldn’t even talk at all, now we’re able to explore things that are good for the community as a whole,” said Jones. “I tend to look at it as a relationship that’s getting better.”
Jones said the company was putting in new equipment that would allow them to bypass the aquifer used by Groveland and other Lake County communities and access an unused water source. The company had also plugged into a system that takes effluent from the plant — clean water that is not up to the bottling company’s quality standards — and uses it to irrigate area farms. Jones said that the combination of deep drilling and effluent irrigation would actually help recharge the upper aquifer that serves Groveland. Jones admitted, though, that in some quarters feelings remained raw. And while residents’ fears of wells running dry had not come to pass, some locals were quick to blame the bottling plant for falling lake levels despite evidence that rapid growth in the Orlando metropolitan region was the true culprit.
“A lot of it is just perception,” said Jones. “But perception becomes reality if people believe that [the bottling plant] is a contributing factor.”
Same rates, rebates in North Carolina
In Mooresville, N.C., Niagara’s bid to build a bottling plant was met with relief. The town of 32,000 is located 25 miles north of Charlotte on the shores of Lake Norman: a man-made 32,000-acre lake that provides water to nearby nuclear and hydroelectric power facilities. About 10 years ago, the town invested $75 million in utility upgrades in anticipation of rapid residential and commercial growth. But the 2008 financial meltdown brought development to a halt and left the town with surplus capacity and a stagnant pool of customers.
Town Manager Erskine Smith said that Mooresville had actively courted the bottler by offering them the same rates as non-commercial customers and offering rebates when water use tops 420 million gallons a year. The company occupied the last vacant space in the town’s industrial park and has expanded to five production lines. Water rates actually fell in the first years that the plant was in operation before leveling out.
“Having them come in here allowed us to offset some of our costs and keep our rates fairly flat,” said Smith. “It was non-controversial and pretty well-received.”