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An attempted Niagara Bottling Company water grab in iconic Woodstock New York was a defining moment for Rachel Marco Havens. In Rachel’s words, her story is about “a beautiful lake in a little town with a BIG voice, and the taxpayer-funded, corporate water grab that almost happened.” 

Community activists swung into action when the Niagara Bottling Company attempted to syphon off public water resources for private gain in Woodstock, New York. Though previously skeptical of “David and Goliath” activism, where communities take on behemoth transnational corporations, Rachel helped lead Kingston Citizens, a small community group, to a major victory for the people of her town.

Local, citizen-led water rights victories are gaining traction. As we approach World Water Day on March 19, activists around the world are making bold, grassroots challenges to corporate takeover of public water sources and infrastructure. Assisted by watchdog organizations such as Food and Water Watch, residents in towns from Fryeburg, Maine to Mecosta, Michigan, and McCloud, California are becoming increasingly savvy. They are standing their ground against mammoth water corporations—and winning. 

Woodstockers vs. Niagara

Wooed to New York State in 2014-2015 by tax abatements, the Niagara Bottling Company was ready to set up shop in the Hudson Valley. The Mid-Hudson Valley Economic Development Council had prioritized Niagara’s plan for a massive bottling plant that would tap Cooper Lake in the hamlet of Woodstock, which is the reservoir for the nearby city of Kingston, NY.  

Rachel recounts:

Just outside of Woodstock, NY—a community with a history of relentless activism, free thinkers and artists—sits Cooper Lake, a sacred site of the Algonquin people. The lake was once an indigenous teaching ground where young women were mentored and underwent rites of passage. Cooper Lake is the reservoir for the City of Kingston, NY’s water supply. Yellow tape signaling restricted access is new to the lake.

Around the time when the yellow tape appeared, the governing Water Board of Cooper Lake asserted that the cost of updating a neglected water infrastructure to heightened state regulations would be difficult without outside economic development intervention. Their “easy-out” was to offer 1.75 million gallons per day of Cooper Lake water to the California-based Niagara Bottling Company. Promoted by the Ulster Town Supervisor, the Niagara proposal was well underway by the time the public caught wind of it.

Corporate water takeover proposals are typically “fast tracked” behind closed doors before residents are alerted. In the case of Cooper Lake, calculations based on antiquated data, convoluted municipal water regulations, and strained political relationships among the three municipalities involved, worked in favor of those determined to push the plan through.

Predictably, Niagara’s profit margin eclipsed consideration of even the most basic needs of Woodstock and Kingston residents. The multinational’s proposal had not factored in the towns’ future water needs in drought conditions. Nor had it accounted for any potential expansion of the towns. It also ignored the fact that the bottling company’s demand would extend water consumption beyond the lake’s “safe yield” point.

Rachel and her colleagues at Kingston Citizens hit the ground running and initiated the “Save Cooper Lake” campaign. They determined to block the proposed sale of water from Cooper Lake to any bottling company. The group spread the word, and Rachel learned, “on the fly” how to hold her elected officials’ feet to the fire: 

Kingston Citizens began months of conversations with elected officials. My team leaders scoured policy, educated the public, and worked with partners and local politicians to map the potential impacts of the Niagara proposal. I attended planning meetings, called, tweeted, strategized, and spoke out. I read everything I could find pertaining to the Governor’s economic development directive and the StartUp tax abatements for Niagara. 

The BIG Picture 

Initially triggered by an imminent threat to their priceless water resources, grassroots organizers are quickly connecting the droplets to understand the nuanced bigger picture: a global mega-corporate assault on water source access and control. Woodstock has a voice with historical momentum. Activists masterfully mobilized a spectrum of local constituencies, and used that unified voice to speak to the larger water rights issues. As Rachel says:

This assault on our water was my call to rise and claim stewardship of the collective commons. 

The protest mantra, "Save My Lake. We are all in the same boat,” began to consume my consciousness. I got that this was bigger than my little lake, town, state or region. The water crisis is global. 

Harnessing the wrath of my neighbors and raising awareness of the broader impact of this project was a trying experience. A large group of angry, mobilized citizens can either make things more difficult, or be a valuable asset to those on the front lines. Woodstockers, operating from a place of fear as they fought privatization of their water exhibited both sides of the coin. 

Transforming that dynamic in the name of water eventually catalyzed my choice to completely change the direction of my life. I determined to exemplify the move from fear and complacency to being a solutionist. 

Kingston Citizens rallied thousands to sign a petition that served to educate a large swath of the valley. 

Ultimately, the Mid-Hudson Valley Regional Economic Development Council made awards to six local grantees and Niagara walked away with nothing. The bottling company pulled up its stakes and moved on. 

Now, winners of water victories are paying it forward by quietly helping other localities head multinational water companies off at the pass. Rachel and members of Kingston Citizens, for example, are assisting residents of Bloomfield Connecticut, the next Niagara target town.  

Beware—your town might be next. Resource-stretched towns that are endowed with water but burdened with outdated and/or lax water regulations are prime targets for water multinationals. If your town meets this description, be proactive.

Information is power. Are the municipal agreements governing your town’s water source up to spec? Do they anticipate future water demands? How well scrutinized is your locality’s groundwater use? What kind of record keeping does your state or municipality require of private well owners–including bottlers? It is imperative that citizens educate themselves about their town’s water-resilience and points of vulnerability, work to update water policies, and address water infrastructure issues.

Fortunately, communities worldwide are waking up as droughts stretch on and occasional flooding becomes chronic.  We can determine to be in that number.

As Rachel Marco Havens observes:

If I had stayed on the couch for that nine months, I wouldn’t have recognized the tremendous force that the grassroots organizations have in my community or how to join them. Gone are the days of feeling that my voice holds little power in social and political arenas. We disenfranchise ourselves when we silent.  I speak up because—how could I not?  I show up because I can. 

Water is a human right. What we consistently focus on manifests in our lives. We can be vigilant, stay awake, and keep our finger on the water-pulse. We can choose to consciously and strategically do what we can, where we are, and take action to protect this precious resource. When we do, the result is transformative—for our communities, and for ourselves. 

Photo credit: Save Cooper Lake website