Are Greedy Water Bottlers Siphoning Your City’s Drinking Water?

Monday 22 March 2010

by: Tara Lohan

It took six years for residents of tiny McCloud, California, to give Nestle Waters North America its walking papers. The water bottler had hoped to build a 1 million square-foot facility in the town of less than 2,000 and was given a backroom 50-year contract (renewable for an additional 50 years) to annually take 1,250 gallons per minute of delicious spring water from the town, hunkered in the shadow of Mount Shasta, and unlimited groundwater. But after years of opposition from community and environmental groups, Nestle scrapped its plans and left with its tail between its legs.

However, the bottling giant didn’t have to look very far for its next target. Last summer as Gov. Schwarzenegger was warning that parched California was in its third year of drought, and residents of the capital city of Sacramento were facing water restrictions, Nestle was getting a behind-the-scenes welcome mat rolled out and the keys to the city’s water pipes.

The food and beverage giant is king when it comes to bottled water — it controls one-third of the U.S. market and sells water under 70 different brand names such as Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Perrier and Poland Spring. It shares the stage with two other giant bottlers, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, although Nestle is the big culprit in targeting rural communities for spring water, a move that has earned it fierce opposition across the U.S. from towns worried about losing their precious water resources.

As small, rural towns across the U.S. started to organize in opposition to Nestle, the company tried to rope in a bigger city. In July it was announced that Nestle would be opening a bottling plant in Sacramento, but how much water the company would be taking is in dispute. The company says it will take 150 acre-feet of water (close to 50 million gallons) in the first year. Reportedly about 30 million of this will come from the municipal water system and 20 million from undisclosed private springs in nearby counties.

But an October article in the Sacramento Bee reported that the city’s utilities director estimated instead that the plant would take 80 million, and not 30 million gallons a year from Sacramento. Other city departments have reportedly placed the number as high as 116 million, but the estimates are really inconsequential. Nestle is allowed to draw as much water as it can fit through its pipe; there’s no maximum to how much it can bottle.

While residents are asked to conserve water, Nestle gets an all-you-can-bottle buffet. Expectedly, this has some folks worried. “We have concerns about conflicting numbers and the fact that this was supposed to be replacement for McCloud, which was hundreds of millions of gallons,” said Evan Tucker, of the citizen’s group Save Our Water Sacramento. “There is no limit on how much water they can pump, there is a flat rate. They can pump as much as they want, the city says there is nothing they can do about it.”

While Nestle faced problems with its environmental impact in McCloud, Sacramento residents have no idea what the potential impact would be because the company was not required to hold public hearings or perform an environmental review.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a project is either “ministerial” or “discretionary.” The city says that Nestle’s bottling plant, which would be in an area zoned for industrial would pass as ministerial, which means all it has to do is fill out the necessary forms and pay the fees, but there is no public say in the process and no environmental review needs to be completed.

Save Our Water Sacramento felt differently. The group challenged the city on the decision, arguing that because Nestle had requested a second water line be added to the plant those changes actually pushed the project into the discretionary category of CEQA, where there should be ample review. But when legal challenges were raised, Nestle quickly withdrew its plans for a second water line and the city gave its stamp of approval.

The Business of Bottled Water

The world faces a global crisis of fresh drinking water. An estimated 3.6 million people, including 1.5 million children, die each year from water-related diseases. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement last week, “More people die from unsafe water than all forms of violence, including war.” Yet, in rich nations like the U.S., where potable water flows from taps in most everyone’s homes and costs pennies, people are still shelling out extra bucks for bottled water and the industry is making a killing.

The bottled water business has climbed steadily over the last few decades, only falling off slightly in recent years. TriplePundit reported in November 2009:

According to data from Beverage Marketing, a U.S.-based data and consulting firm, retail sales of single-serving plastic bottles increased from 1.4 billion gallons in 2000 to 5.2 billion gallons last year, lifting their share of total bottled water volume from 29 percent to more than 60 percent. And, over the past decade, per-capita consumption of bottled water in the U.S. has more than doubled to about 200 bottles per year, per person, according to MarketWatch.

Still, leading bottled water companies like Nestle saw a dip in sales beginning in 2008 — perhaps a signal that people are waking up to the environmental and economic costs of bottled water. It may also be a sign that during cash-strapped times, people are finding their way back to tap water instead.

In response to the downturn in sales, the industry has responded by trying to “bluewash” its image and make itself seem more environmentally friendly. A new report from Food and Water Watch reveals that bottled water companies are using awareness-raising initiatives like World Water Day to advertise contributions they make to water charities, especially in the developing world, and to claim they are making their businesses more green.

But, “Bottled water is inherently not a water-friendly product,” the F&WW report says. “Bottling companies take water out of local water systems and ship it elsewhere — which is one reason that many residents worried about their local water have opposed water bottlers in their communities. … No mater how much water bottlers talk about the steps they are taking to reduce their water footprint, as long as water generates profit, bottlers will never have an incentive to reduce overall water consumption.”

(Get the rest of this important story at TruthOut.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: