You may not know it but there's a war going on over the nation's water. Right now, bottled water is poised to outsell soft drinks for the first time. Some insist it's a healthy trend. But others say bottled isn't necessarily better than tap and worry about the environmental impact.
That's this week's cover story: Water Wars.
Even with a GPS, we had a hard time finding this small natural spring nestled in the scenic hills of Maine; where the owner's love for water runs as deep as the ancient, underground aquifer that feeds it.
Bryan Pullen: Trust me, it's the best you've ever you'll ever have.
Sharyl Attkisson: It's very good. Cold and clear.
Bryan Pullen: Fantastic. Oh yeah.
Bryan Pullen owns Summit Springs, and all its history.
Bryan Pullen: That's the cleanest thing you've ever touched in your entire lifetime.
Bryan Pullen: This building is original. The masonry is original.The reason the building is in such great shape is because the water emanates from the ground at 46 degrees year round. Never changes
This metal enclosure is built over the spring look inside and you can see down through several feet of super clear water to the H20 bubbling up through the gravel. Pullen says its the purest, most unadulterated water on the planet, which he bottles in modest amounts, and sells regionally and online.
Bryan Pullen: The bottling plant is actually 17 feet below where the sources emanates. So we bottle by gravity. And by gravity flowing to the bottling plant, right there 50 feet away. So we believe we're probably the only one, almost anywhere on earth, that captures the water, gravity feeds it right into the bottle only at the source. No transportation, no pumps, no bore holes, no anything.
Summit Spring is a small player in a huge and some say strange, industry. Americans are paying big bucks for a resource widely available for free. In 2015, bottled water sales reached $14.2 billion--up 8.7% over the year before. Americans drank a collective 11.7 billion gallons averaging 36.3 gallons per person. And some recognizable names are leaders in the industry: Nestle, with brands like Arrowhead, Deer Park and Poland Springs, Niagara, Coca Cola with Dasani, and Pepsi with Aquafina.
Joe Doss heads up the International Bottled Water Association.
Joe Doss: It's obviously, a milestone event that bottled water's about to become the number one beverage product in the US, and again I think it has to do with it's health driven, it's consumer driven. I think this is a function of consumers wanting to live healthier lifestyles. We're an on the go society, bottled water is safe, healthy, convenient.
Sharyl Attkisson: Is it worth paying a premium for real spring water?
Bryan Pullen: Absolutely it is.
Sharyl Attkisson: Says the guy who sells the spring water.
Bryan Pullen: Well, that you, you can say that. That's true. But this is the most important thing you can do for your health or your children's.
But muddying the bottled water pitch are environmentalists, who question the impact of large-scale removal of water from springs and underground aquifers.
Mae Wu: There are a lot of reasons why that's bad environmentally.
Mae Wu is a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council.
Mae Wu: First, you think about the bottles that are being made, they're they pump oil out of the ground, and then turn it into these plastic bottles, and then use them to fill up to make the bottled water. So all of the environmental costs come from producing the bottles, transporting the bottles, and then at the end of the life cycle, most people don't recycle these bottles, so they just end up sitting in landfill forever.
There are other objections. Across North America, we found recent efforts to slow or stop the water industry from extracting what the communities see as their precious resource: from Muskegon, Michigan to Presque Isle, Wisconsin, Suwanee and Lakeland, Florida, Los Lunas, New Mexico, Siskiyou County, California and throughout Ontario, Canada.
Mae Wu: You're taking millions of gallons of water from one area and if you're trucking it to another part of the country, or another part of the world, then it is leaving the local city and the local town.
Today, the U.S. is awash in water wars. Water has sparked a sometimes-violent standoff after the federal government granted fast-track approval to build The Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Native Americans and other protesters insist a spill could harm the water the tribe and other residents rely on. This week the government said it would explore alternate routes.
In Flint, Michigan, the government's attempt to make the water safer actually contaminated it with lead, causing a public health crisis. In this case, it's bottled water to the rescue. A federal judge recently ordered officials to provide each resident at least 48 liters of bottled water per week. Meantime, water bottlers have an answer for every environmental criticism. As for the idea that it's depleting community water supplies.
Joe Doss: Bottled water uses .02 percent of all the groundwater that is extracted in the United States. You could determine, and usually do, by the permitting process, how much water can be extracted. So, again, it's in our best interest to have long term, sustainable sources of water, otherwise we wouldn't be in business.
And the industry says it continues to push for recycling. Finally the big question: Is bottled water any better than tap water? Naturally, that depends on the quality of the tap and the bottle which varies widely. The problem is most bottled water doesn't come from a place like this fresh spring water that bubbles above the ground, no filtering necessary, then straight to your table. In fact, some bottled water comes straight from the faucet.
Mae Wu: So know that you're not buying a product that's necessarily cleaner, that's necessarily safer, so don't buy it thinking that's what you're getting, but if you've decided for whatever reason that that's the decision that you want to make, you should do it will all that knowledge.
Sharyl Attkisson: Is there is a real reason for people to be wary.
Bryan Pullen: Yes.
Sharyl Attkisson: of the bottled water craze?
Bryan Pullen: Yes. Absolutely.
Sharyl Attkisson: It's not all great bottled water.
Bryan Pullen: Absolutely. Is there a difference in food? Is there a difference in organic food? Is there a difference between certain producers of food and other producers of food? Does it matter if it was sprayed with chemical? You got to do your homework. You got to pay attention.
Despite the bottled water industry's size, the amount of water actually sold is relatively tiny, compared to the volume of tap water we use. U.S. public water systems supply more than one billion gallons of tap water an hour, every hour of the day.
The total amount of bottled water we buy in one year would only fill our tap water needs for nine hours.