WASHINGTON — As large swathes of the western United States continue to wither under the effects of record-breaking drought, longstanding local concerns over water use are becoming increasingly contentious, adding to the national debate over corporate right and common good.
In recent weeks, a desert area of Southern California has seen focus suddenly turn toward a water-bottling plant owned by Nestle Waters North America, which has continued its operations despite the worsening water crisis. In an outraged action request in mid-August, the League of Conservation Voters, a prominent national lobby group, urged 50,000 of its members and consumers to petition the company on the issue.
“Nestle … is bottling California’s water, selling it, and profiting while the state suffers from a scorching, record-breaking drought,” the groups warned in a series of emails. “Friend, we are fuming. To date, Nestle has refused to acknowledge concerns about the water they are taking.”
California has been hit particularly hard this year — the third consecutive year of drought — and as of early August, state water supplies were at less than two-thirds capacity. Most of the state is currently experiencing “exceptional drought,” the most severe rating according to a federal scale. Several other states, from Oregon to Texas, are also experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions.
In response, California authorities have put in place a variety of policy and public relations measures, aiming to safeguard dwindling resources. As far back as January, Gov. Jerry Brown requested that the state’s residents voluntarily cut down their water use by a fifth, though this seemed to have only a middling effect.
Since then, authorities have placed hard caps on the amount of water users can go through each day, and there has been a crackdown on outdoor activities such as watering lawns, washing cars or cleaning sidewalks. Even the state’s lucrative and powerful agricultural sector has been forced to scale back its water use, in some places significantly, reportedly already leading to $1 billion in losses.
Nestle’s bottling operation, however, is located on Native American land, operating under a 25-year lease from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Cabazon, in the state’s arid south. Water from the area is bottled and sold under the brands Arrowhead and Pure Life, according to the local media investigation that broke the story in July. The article’s author, Ian James, pointed to federal data suggesting that water levels in the area have been going down by up to 4 feet a year over the past decade.
Private property or public trust?
In part because the Morongo are a sovereign nation, Nestle is not required to tell California authorities how much water its Cabazon bottling plant is extracting, nor does it need to confirm whether it is abiding by the state’s broader rationing strategy.
Still, the company says it is taking important conservation steps, telling MintPress that it is “committed to managing water supplies for long-term sustainability” and clarifying that some 80 percent of the water it bottles in California is sold in the state.
“Recognizing that no company, person or entity is immune from the effects of the drought, we have planned for and adapted our operations in light of the current situation,” Nestle Waters North America, which is based in Connecticut, said in response to a query to the Morongo Band.
“Our water use management program includes curtailing withdrawals depending on conditions at a spring site. Our monitoring shows that … there is no significant adverse impact on the any springs or surrounding groundwater levels related to the water we withdraw.”
In Southern California specifically, the company says, it can withdraw water from five springs, and its managers alternate which sources are used based on local conditions. Nestle also noted that the amount of water it withdraws in California makes up just 0.004 percent of the total water use throughout the state.
Outside experts, too, have cast doubt on the impact that Nestle’s bottling operations are having — or even could have — on California’s overall groundwater reserves. Nonetheless, in conditions of extreme and prolonged drought, the debate around the issue highlights the notable lack of policy options that government authorities, at any level, have to intervene.
“We’re in a very bad drought right now and it’s time to really manage our public water resources wisely — and Nestle’s operations are really antithetical to good public water management,” Adam Scow, California director for Food & Water Watch, a watchdog group, told MintPress.
“Yet, the state has no specific policy on water bottling. Here we are in the middle of this drought and no one even knows how much water the company’s taking at that plant or other plants,” he continued.
Two years ago, state legislators did pass legislation that would have required water companies to report how much water they were bottling, but that bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Likewise, attempts to have the state’s water authority oversee a comprehensive mapping and analysis of the state’s water resources — to many, a seemingly straightforward step — are again being held up.
Scow said the broader problem underpinning this lack of legislative progress is the fact that California doesn’t formally view water as a resource in the public trust. As a result, it’s one of the very few states lacking comprehensive groundwater regulations.
“Water is pretty much treated as private property, which is crazy and grossly irresponsible,” he said.
“This is due to industry opposition, largely from corporate agriculture, which is the big groundwater sucker in California. Most likely, the fear is that if the public knew how much groundwater there is, there would be some limitations on how much water they could take.”
Lack of policy levers
Meanwhile, the current drought affecting much of the American West could continue for years, or worsen in the future due to a changing climate. Last week, researchers at Cornell Universitywarned that the chances of a decade-long drought in the Southwest are as high as 50 percent, and that the chances of a 30-year “megadrought” are likewise anywhere from 20 to 50 percent.
“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region,” Toby Ault, a Cornell assistant professor and lead author of a new paper on the issue, said in astatement.
“With ongoing climate change, this is a glimpse of things to come,” he added. “It’s a preview of our future.”
Of course, the prospect of climate change-related drought only increases the likelihood that, in the future, water will likely need to be brought from places of relative abundance and moved to places of relative need. Such a dynamic highlights the likely strengthened role of private companies such as Nestle, but also underscores the need for stringent and forward-looking safeguards.
So far, however, there have been relatively few local, state or national policies to deal explicitly with such concerns.
“Unfortunately, bottled water corporations continuing to bottle at high levels even in times of drought is not unprecedented,” Erin Diaz, a campaign director with Corporate Accountability International, a watchdog group, told MintPress. “In fact, there is a clear track record of these companies continuing to extract water at times of drought.”
Two prominent cases took place during a region-wide drought a half-decade ago. In 2007 in Atlanta, for instance, even as city officials were rationing water and cancelling festivals, Diaz said Coca-Cola continued to bottle in the area at its normal rate. During the same time and even through the following year, PepsiCo likewise continued its bottling operations in North Carolina.
Diaz said there are few options for authorities in such cases.
“I’m not aware of any policy levers,” she said. “Even from our side, in the past we’ve mainly called directly on the corporations to cease their bottling or to meet the same restrictions as are being asked of the public.”
Still, Diaz said that throughout much of the country the idea of maintaining water infrastructure and ensuring access as a public trust remains strong. Nonetheless, she expressed concern that, in the U.S. and internationally, water companies are actively working against this idea.
“Since their inception, bottled water corporations have used marketing to try to change the way that we think about water — not as a human right but rather as a commodity that can be bought and sold,” she said.
Yet, communities that have been negatively impacted by this dynamic have repeatedly found ways to safeguard their local resources. For instance, the small town of Wacissa, Florida, was able to reject a plan by Nestle to use water from a local river by passing an ordinance requiring the backing of a majority of its city council before any future water-bottling plan can be approved. Another community, in Michigan, was able to use a legal injunction to limit the amount of water a company was able to bottle from the area.
“The strength of public water systems is their very clear mandate to provide water as a public trust and ensure equal access in a democratically accountable fashion,” Diaz said. “That’s what’s fundamentally different from a bottling corporation coming in and using that resource for profit.”