Communities across the country are facing the privatization of their water by bottled water corporations. As the residents of Nottingham, New Hampshire learned, these bottling operations impact aquifers, rivers, lakes, wildlife habitat, and access to clean drinking water.
A decade ago, Nottingham residents discovered that the USA Springs corporations was seeking state approval to build a water bottling plant in their community that would siphon out over 300,000 gallons of water a day from the local aquifer. Turning to the state’s Department of Environmental Services for help to stop the water withdrawals, residents learned that under the New Hampshire Groundwater Protection Act, corporations are awarded permits by the DES to extract water from local aquifers. The law – in regulating water extraction – legally authorizes corporations to privatize local water sources. Thus, when the local community finds its water threatened by a water bottling plant and contacts the DES for help to protect local water, instead it finds the agency issuing permits to corporations to take it.
Six years and almost $500,000 later, Nottingham residents continued their fight, losing time and again, until they reached the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Surely, some thought, we will find a remedy here! However, as many others in the community predicted, in 2007 the state Supreme Court issued its decision against the residents. Denying the residents any legal “standing,” the court ruled unanimously in favor of the corporation. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Supreme Court was the State, which had filed a brief in support of the corporation.
Why can’t we find a remedy?
For a couple of years, Nottingham residents had been watching what was unfolding in nearby Barnstead, where residents were asserting the right of the community to local self-governance and banned corporations from water withdrawals. And while some folks from Nottingham had high hopes for their case going before the New Hampshire Supreme Court, many others began to ask questions about the structure of law we live under, including: Isn’t the Department of Environmental Services supposed to be protecting the residents and the local ecosystem? How can we—the people who live in Nottingham—not have “standing” to speak about what happens to the water here? And, why isn’t our right to say “No” to water extraction recognized?
The folks in Nottingham asking these questions formed the Nottingham Water Alliance. They talked with the folks in Barnstead, and CELDF community organizer Gail Darrell began working with them. Through Democracy Schools, public meetings, research, and sometimes heated discussions, community members learned that the corporate directors of USA Springs, living nowhere near Nottingham, had more rights to decide what happened to the water than the people who lived there. They learned that the U.S. Constitution—supposedly written to protect the rights of human beings—was now able to be wielded by private corporations to override local, democratic decision making.
Understanding that they would find no remedy under the existing structure of law based on their own experience with the DES and later in the courts, and mindful of their Barnstead neighbors, residents asked CELDF to draft the Nottingham Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance. Working with Nottingham residents, CELDF prepared the ordinance that codified into law their right to prohibit corporations from extracting water for resale within the municipality. It also stripped water corporations of their rights when they came into conflict with community rights, and asserted the right of the community and its residents to local self-governance.
At their March 2008 Town Meeting, Nottingham residents voted in favor of the ordinance with an overwhelming majority in favor — despite the opposition of their Board of Selectmen. USA Springs ceased building the plant once the ordinance was enacted, and since then has declared bankruptcy. To date, not a drop of water has been siphoned from Nottingham.
Following Barnstead’s lead, and then Nottingham, other communities in New Hampshire as well as Maine and California are following in these communities’ footsteps.
Want to learn more? Interested in what you can do in your community? Contact CELDF’s New England Organizer, Gail Darrell, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 269-8542.
by Bob Sanders, New Hampshire Business Review
May 26th, 2010