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Residents in regional communities fighting the bottled water industry for groundwater

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As the drought bites deeper, residents in a growing number of rural communities are fighting to stop local groundwater being taken to satisfy Australia's thirst for bottled water.

At Tamborine Mountain in Queensland's Gold Coast hinterland, some locals are angry that bore water supplies are being used to supply bottled water companies.

"We watch the water tankers go up and down the road," local Tanya Bregnsdal said.

She believes the bottled water industry is to blame for her bore running dry.

"It's supposed to be a lush, beautiful place and we're just desperate for the water tankers to stop," Ms Bregnsdal said.

Every week nearly one third of Australians buy bottled water, and the industry generates more than $700 million revenue annually.

Dianne Warnes is among the residents here who want the 'water mining' industry, as opponents call it, shut down.

"The water that's being extracted is being taken to the plastic bottle factories and all it's doing is adding to the pollution and taking our water," she said.

Ms Warnes said there needs to be proper monitoring and metering of groundwater in the area.

"We need to have meters on bores and to make people accountable for the water that they're using," she said.

Message in a battle

But commercial extractors on the mountain say their take is not affecting the local water supply.

Jason Watson's family runs one of three water supply businesses at Tamborine Mountain.

He said he monitors his own bores to make sure water levels are not dropping.

"We measure rainfall, we know the depths of the bores, the recharge rates — we know how much we take," he said.

"It can be a sustainable business if it's managed properly."

Mr Watson said he would welcome increased regulation.

"Metering would make it fairer for everyone," he said.

Tamborine Mountain is one of at least 10 communities across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia where 'water mining' is causing community tension.

Just an hour's drive south, a similar battle is playing out a Springbrook, an area surrounded by rainforest.

Local botanist David Jinks said there is not enough information about how groundwater extraction is affecting the local ecology.

"All the species here are really dependent on the water from the aquifers in that National Park," he said, referring to the Springbrook National Park in the Gondwana rainforests of the Australia World Heritage Area.

"They're not selling spring water, they're selling bore water at the expense of plants that have relied on it for millennia."

The Queensland Government told the ABC most of the groundwater extracted from Springbrook was for household use and that the area does not require a water resource plan or further management.

Queensland University of Technology is conducting a hydrogeological study of groundwater systems at Springbrook and Tambourine Mountain.

'A small amount of groundwater'

Chief executive of the Australian Beverages Council, Geoff Parker, said no evidence has been provided that any of the industry's water sources are under threat.

"We take these issues extremely seriously and all of our members are required to adhere to current water licence regulations and associated legal requirements," he said.

Most groundwater use in Australia is for irrigation and mining.

Tim Carey runs the Ballarat-based Black Mount Spring Water company, Australia's biggest supplier of water to the industry.

"The industry uses an incredibly small amount of groundwater," he said.

"Recent studies are showing under 0.01 per cent of all groundwater extracted is used in the bottled water industry."

But opponents point out that this extraction isn't spread uniformly across the country, it's being taken from concentrated areas close to bottling facilities.

'An unnecessary industry'

In the Tweed Shire in northern New South Wales, there are 11 groundwater operations supplying the beverage industry, and another six applications in the pipeline.

Denise White lives in the shire's small town of Uki, where nearly every home and business displays a 'Stop water mining' sign.

"I think we should err on the side of caution as far as water goes," she said.

"Particularly now with the drought and the way everybody's affected by water or lack of.

"That's to my mind an unnecessary industry because all they're doing is creating plastic waste, putting it into tiny little bottles."

Thirsty work

Councils do not have any say on water regulations.

In the Tweed Shire, the council has used local planning laws to stop new bottled water operators.

But it said it has had to fight off court appeals from rejected applicants, at a financial cost.

Deputy Mayor, Chris Cherry, said council asked the NSW Government to change legislation to allow the shire to refuse any more commercial extraction applications.

"Allowing bottled water facilities in our rural zones has had unintended consequences for us as a shire," she said.

"We are not a community that wants to become the water bottle capital of Australia."

NSW water authorities told the ABC bores in this part of the state must now be monitored.

The results of an investigation by the NSW chief scientist into commercial extraction of the NSW northern rivers region is expected soon.

Groundwater expert from the University of New South Wales, Associate Professor Martin Andersen, said groundwater is an important emergency supply during droughts and it needs to be managed carefully and sustainably.

"Groundwater flows very slowly and so these drawdowns take time to propagate through the system, and so some of the impacts come years or decades later," he said.

"We are heading towards a potentially hotter and potentially drier climate and that means probably less groundwater recharge, so we certainly need to plan for the future.

"If you have a limited resource, maybe we shouldn't be using or allowing bottled-water extraction in those particular catchments."

Around the country, opponents of 'water mining' are all also upset about the plastic waste created by the bottled water industry.

Plastic waste

Locals in Musk, in central Victoria, are among those who want bottled water extraction gone from their area.

"We have wonderful drinkable water in Australia, we're very lucky and we don't need to drink it out of an expensive bottle," Musk resident, Helen Hayes, said.

Local mayor Don Henderson said it is something that grates on a lot of the local ratepayers.

"I think it's a really environmentally bad thing, bottled water," he said.

"We're trying to get rid of plastics out of the environment."

But bottled water extraction is a legitimate business, Mr Henderson said.

"They're legal businesses and we've got a right to support them, but how much do we support them if there's a groundswell of our ratepayers and residents who are against it? [That] is the issue," he said.

Bottled water supplier, Tim Carey, said the industry is tackling plastic waste concerns.

"The plastics is an issue for every consumer product, not just bottled water," he said.

"The beverage industry has done huge amounts of work on recycling and making more and more of the bottles from recycled materials."

Truck concerns

In each of the shires battling bottled water extraction, heavy vehicle traffic created by water tankers is also causing consternation.

"They [locals] have come here for a peaceful life and they get these trucks coming down the hill," Councillor Henderson said.

"And so people are quite rightfully upset about that."

Back at Queensland's Tamborine Mountain, Tanya Bregnsdal just wants the trucks to stop.

"We're dependent on bore water here, our whole community is dependent on water. That's why we're so upset," she said.

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