When activist groups recently held a “reverse tea party”—dumping bottled water into the Boston Harbor—their goal was not to dilute the harbor. Instead it was to dilute free enterprise by protesting “water privatization” and to secure taxpayer dollars to fix problems related to government-provided tap water.
In essence, the protesters seek the reverse of what the founders offered in their forward-thinking tea party, which fought government controls that impede human progress. And unlike the fight for liberty, this regressive agenda won’t do much to help anyone, as it is based on many fallacies.
First, the underlying idea of their campaign is fundamentally flawed. In particular, they maintain that making a profit on water is wrong because it somehow hurts communities around the nation where springs and aquifers provide the water. In reality, these operations bring wealth to those communities. For example, in Maine where activists have tried to stop bottling operations, Poland Spring currently employs over 800 people and brings in considerable tax revenue.
The company also spends a good deal of funds on charity for the community (about $2.5 million since 2000). In addition, the industry at large donates water during emergencies all around the nation, and they do lots of wildlife conservation on their properties.
Furthermore, these operations do not deplete community water supplies as the activists suggest. The aquifers, springs and other natural sources replenish via precipitation, a process called “recharging.” In fact, many have been operating sustainably for hundreds of years.
A study produced by Keith N. Eshleman, Ph.D. at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science reports that “withdrawals for bottled water production represent only 0.019% of the total fresh ground water withdrawals in the U.S.,” which is far less than what Mother Nature recharges.
The fact that people can “profit” by enjoying these renewable resources is a good thing. Accordingly, the goal of water supply management should not involve abandoning the marketplace. Instead, water resources can be managed sustainably and profitably via a marketplace system of property rights.
The truth is many water shortages result because of the absence of markets. In that case, governments mismanage resources in a way that often involves subsidies mostly to large, politically organized users—particularly agriculture.