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Are Greedy Water Bottlers Stealing Your City's Drinking Water?

Bottled water giants are pilfering water from rural towns and cities, while their products are trashing the planet and putting a hole in our pockets. It's time to call it quits.
March 22, 2010  |  

Editor's Note: Watch Annie Leonard's short video, "The Story of Bottled Water" at the end of the article or view it here



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.


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