It is the source of one of the world’s most popular mineral waters, but the eastern French town of Vittel risks running dry.
Nestlé Waters, which owns the Vittel brand, is accused by residents and environmentalists of “overusing” local spring water that supplies the town and its bottling plant to maintain exports. The company denies the allegation.
The underground water level has been falling by 30 centimetres (nearly 12 inches) a year since 1990, according to the French government’s geological bureau. It has gone down by 10 metres in the past four decades.
The consumer association, 60 Millions de Consommateurs, blames “over-exploitation” of the local spring.
Bernard Schmitt, a Vittel resident, said: “We’ve grown used to having this excellent water on tap, but more water is now being extracted than the water table is capable of regenerating. Nestlé says it is using water without exhausting the spring, but that isn’t what’s happening.”
Nestlé is licensed to use a million cubic metres a year for its Vittel Bonne Source mineral water, exported to Germany and other neighbouring countries. The company says it uses other sources for its other brands.
Another 600,000 cubic metres of local spring water are allocated to a cheesemaking company, Ermitage. The two companies use nearly half of Vittel’s water, while the remainder goes to consumers in Vittel, which has a population of 5,000, and surrounding areas.
Nestlé says it is understands the need to reduce water consumption and has cut its usage by 20 per cent over the past 10 years.
Christophe Klotz, head of Agrivair, a Nestlé subsidiary, said the company was prepared to make further reductions. “We have offered to voluntarily reduce the quota allocated to us by 25 per cent,” he told France 2 television. “This is a very substantial effort.”
However, Nestlé acknowledged in a statement that the reduction “will not be enough to compensate for the shortfall” and said it was seeking “a durable solution” with local officials.
Jean-François Fleck, head of a local environmental group, Vosges Nature Environnement, said: “There has been a shortfall in water regeneration since the 1970s, when the water deficit was about 2.5 million cubic metres a year. Today it has stabilised at about 800,000 cubic metres, which is equivalent to Nestlé’s current usage.”
If nothing is done to halt the fall, residents used to having Vittel spring water on tap may be forced to rely on water piped in from the village of Lerrain, 12 miles away.
Installing pipelines could cost up to €50 million (£43.6m). “The work would be funded out of people’s water bills so very clearly we are going to be paying so that Nestlé can continue taking and exporting our water,” Mr Schmitt said.