California Town Takes on Nestlé Over Water Rights

McCloud RiverIn California, a new kind of water war is brewing.

This time, it's not about rivers, wetlands or water rights (who has them, and who doesn't), but about Nestlé Water North America (NWNA) and its plans to build a water bottling plant near the city of McCloud, a town of 1,400 which sits in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Siskyou County, California.

McCloud is located along California Highway 5 in the northern part of the state, about 50 miles from the Oregon border. A lumber town until the timber companies started losing money and moved overseas, McCloud has been trying to modernize its image to attract sportsmen and tourists, but selling its precious water is probably not good strategy. Relying on its world-famous fly-fishing (for native redband and common rainbow trout) might be a better angle (pun intended).  

NWNA's parent company, Nestlé - the world's largest multinational food and beverage company - controls one-third of the US market and bottles under such famous names as Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Perrier, Poland Spring and Ice Mountain. Nestlé, which posted a 5% increase in profits in the first half of the year despite a worldwide economic turndown, sells 70 different brands of water, which it draws from 75 springs all over the United States.

Nestlé's plan, to build a water-bottling plant in the county to capture the uniquely pure waters of the McCloud River, began in 2003. At that time, the company proposed a 1 million-square-foot water-bottling facility which would capture 1,600 acre feet of spring water per year (and an unlimited amount of groundwater) from the McCloud river under a 100-year contract.

Without any public input or environmental impact assessment, the McCloud Watershed Council signed on the dotted line to provide Nestlé with 1,250 gallons per minute of spring water and agreed, on demand, to design, construct and install one or more ground water production wells onsite for Nestlé to use for purposes other than bottled water. Knowing Nestlé, they will likely bottle the ground- and/or well-water as spring water and sell it for a premium price. In exchange, Nestlé will pay .000087 cents per gallon for the water from McCloud's springs - and nothing for the groundwater.

The McCloud River is uniquely pure, in that most of it comes from springs and underground lava aquifers. Lava, because of its porous nature and ability to cultivate beneficial microorganisms, is a superb water filter, used in filtration devices and as a mulch to purify water delivered to horticultural plantings.

The McCloud River is also habitat for more than 200 unique species of wildlife, and its lower reaches have been designated a Wild Trout Stream by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Jerry BrownWhen, in 2006, McCloud residents finally realized that the deal was a fait accompli, they sued both Nestlé and the water district. That same year, a Siskyou judge ruled against the company and the water district, opening the way for wider opposition. In 2007, an appeals court heard the case again. In July of 2008, California Attorney General Jerry Brown said he would sue Nestlé to block the deal unless its effects on global warming are ascertained.

Nestlé has since paid the Siskiyou County planning department to prepare a draft environmental impact report, or DEIR, but opponents complain it is inadequate. According to California Trout (a conservation group incorporated in 1971 to protect California's trout-fishing industry), more information is needed to insure the river and aquifer won't be harmed by Nestlé's proposed operation.

Residents of McCloud are most concerned with plans to bore into the aquifer to collect even more water than Nature currently delivers.

"The problem is that this is a fractured aquifer, with cracks running every which way," Debra Anderson, chairwoman of the McCloud Watershed Council, says. "You really don't know what large-scale drilling will do. People around here have sunk their wells too deep and they lost all their water -- it disappeared like it was going down a bathtub drain."

Pressured from all sides, Nestlé agreed in July of this year to reduce both the size of its facility - to 350,000 square feet from 1,000,000 - and the amount of water it will extract. New proposals call for 600 acre feet per year, or 60% less than the original plan.

Attorney General Brown, however, is not appeased, and on July 28 wrote to the company arguing the environmental impact of producing millions of plastic bottles containing bisphenol A, then shipping them around the country filled with water (which by volume weighs more than almost any other liquid, including fuel) was enormous. Brown also said the state will step in unless Nestlé further revises or reduces its water pumping contract.

In response, Nestlé issued a press release agreeing to an additional study, and announced it had contracted with North State Resources, an environmental and ecological services company out of Sacramento, to provide the study in conjunction with scientists from the University of California at Berkeley and University of California at Davis. The study, which will evaluate air and water quality impacts, as well as hazardous material effects, solid waste, and the role of increased traffic on the community, is in effect a new DEIR.

Attorney General Brown, who charged that the original DEIR "failed to address in any meaningful way the project's likely environmental impacts" - a position supported by Siskyou County Planning Department's Director, Terry Barber - may be satisfied with a more comprehensive study, a redrawn contract and a new, formal project proposal. The residents of McCloud, who contend that their water was sold out from under them without their knowledge or consent, are likely to continue the war.  

If so, Nestlé has only itself to blame. For more than two decades, the company has followed policies that benefit no one and nothing except its bottom line. It sells infant formula in developing countries using marketing tactics that would shame even the major drug companies. These sales ultimately lead to a reduction in breast feeding and a consequent rise in infant deaths due to polluted water and limited access to healthcare. Nestlé also uses child labor in its cocoa harvesting and processing along the Ivory Coast in Africa, and was sued in 2005 by the human rights watchdog group, International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), for doing so. In Columbia, another suit surrounds the wrongful murder of a former Nestlé factory worker. The situation in Columbia is not unique.

Closer to home, residents in Mecosta County, Michigan (where Nestlé opened a spring water bottling plant in 2002) are beginning to reconsider their commitment now that they realize the promised jobs are temporary, the pay low, the benefits absent and the longevity calculated to avoid unemployment insurance. A similar situation exists at the Nestlé Shasta site, where new ads for workers run weekly in the local paper.

water privatizationIn the Western world, bottled water is an indulgence enjoyed by the well-to-do at the expense of the environment to the benefit of multinational corporations like Nestlé. Multinational corporations themselves are aggregate psychopaths, legally structured as much to do harm as they are to do good. And harm seems to win out when there are dollars attached.

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2 comments

If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

lora lee hinton (anonymous)

how do we stop corp.s when they own most of the government via campaign contributios.

Written in March 2011

Helen S. Minton (anonymous)

Jean Hill succeeded in outlawing the sale of bottled water in Concord, Ma. Now, there is a motion at Town Meeting to overturn the law. The argument given is that the law limits the freedom of t hose who want to buy the water. I am now aware that the problem of bottled water (a fad among the middle-aged and young) has been considered in many towns across the United States where Nestle tried to buy up the privilege of taking water. Those who think their their freedom i impinged by outlawing the sale of bottled water should consider the freedom of towns who protect their aquifers.

Written in April 2013

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