The US is now the world’s second-biggest consumer of bottled water.
Californians facing the prospect of endless drought, mandated cuts in water use and the browning of their summer lawns are mounting a revolt against the bottled water industry, following revelations that Nestlé and other big companies are taking advantage of poor government oversight to deplete mountain streams and watersheds at vast profit. An investigation by the San Bernardino Desert Sun that showed the company is taking water from some of California’s driest areas on permits that expired as long as 27 years ago. The Desert Sun investigation found that a Nestlé pumping operation at Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, had been unlicensed since 1987. Another operation in the same National Forest, at Deer Canyon Springs, involves a deal between Nestlé and the local water district that has not been permitted since 1994. The revelations have agencies from the California State Water Resources Control Board to the US Forest Service scrambling to justify a regulatory framework that is poorly policed and imposes almost no requirements on the big water companies to declare how much water they are taking. Government oversight often falls between the cracks of state agencies, the US Forest Service and autonomous Indian tribes, giving the companies greater leeway.
“While California is facing record drought conditions, it is unconscionable that Nestlé would continue to bottle the state’s precious water, export it and sell it for profit,” says the petition, which is sponsored by the political activist organisation the Courage Campaign.
“Nestlé has repeatedly ignored requests from local residents to halt its operations,” said Erin Diaz of the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International, which is running a “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign. “It’s clear that Nestlé has no intention of voluntarily halting its dangerous water bottling practices. It’s time for state water regulators to step in.”
Water-bottling also carries symbolic weight because it takes a natural resource that theoretically belongs to all and turns it into a product retailing for many thousands – some studies suggest hundreds of thousands – of times what it costs at source. Studies over the past decade and a half have challenged the claims of an industry that barely existed 25 years ago that bottled water is healthier than tap – in fact somewhere between one quarter and one half of bottled water comes from the tap – and decried the environmental impact of the plastic bottles it usually comes in. Sales topped 10bn gallons in the US for the first time in 2013 – 32 gallons per person – and are projected to be as high as 13bn gallons in 2014.
The company claims 700m gallons a year is taken, or about what it takes to keep two golf courses green. That might more easily be verified if legislation to force regular disclosure of volumes bottled and sold had not been vetoed by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008 and 2010. An absence largely explained by the lobbying power of agribusiness in a state that boasts the single most productive concentration of farm land on the planet. Governor Jerry Brown, who has come under fire for imposing a 25% reduction in water use on cities and municipalities but not on farms.
According to Adam Scow, California director of Food and Water Watch “We need to start managing and protecting groundwater as a public resource. In a drought, bottling public water for private profit qualifies as wasteful and unreasonable.”