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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.
 
 
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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.

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."

It may be a no-brainer for many people to stop buying bottled water, but government has been slow to catch on in many places. A report by Corporate Accountability International found that four Northeastern states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont -- spend nearly $2 million on bottled water that comes out of taxpayers' pockets. This seems especially troubling because we face a $24 billion annual shortfall of funding for public water systems and many cities and states are feeling the pinch of a slowed economy and cutting public services.

Ironically, last year Sacramento's city council voted to ban bottled water at its meetings, "in recognition that plastic water bottles are littering the world and the precious water they once contained is often wasted," as city councilor Kevin McCarty said. But the rest of the city government doesn't seem to be on the same page.

The Sacramento Bee found that water use went up 22 percent at the city's metered properties during the last three years of drought. (Shockingly, water meters are an altogether new concept for Sacramento.) In response Mayor Kevin Johnson told the Sacramento Bee:

"We're going to have to learn to use water smarter, which is a new way of thinking in our city where residents have tapped into two major rivers for generations. We need to light a fire under the city's efforts to save water so we can be a shining example of how to use water more efficiently instead of being a showcase of waste and inefficiency."

But as Johnson was issuing that statement he was also offering other rather contradictory ones. "I appreciate the concerns of citizens who worry about water use and conservation. The city has asked residents to conserve. The city can't ignore industrial water use. Those concerns should be discussed and addressed," he said, but apparently that doesn't apply to Nestle.

"When I heard Nestle was bringing a plant to Sacramento, I was excited. I believe Sacramento should do everything possible to encourage businesses to move here and hire our citizens," he said. "For me, the Nestle story is pretty simple. It's all about jobs. Nestle is bringing jobs to Sacramento with the company's new water bottling plant."

So, 40 jobs trumps the potential impact of untold million and millions of gallons of water, as well as the environmental impact of the plastic bottles, themselves. Even Nestle's lowest estimate of 50 million gallons would mean 800 million new plastic water bottles a year, Treehugger reported. Across the country, the environmental impact of our bottled water addiction is huge. In just the U.S. in 2007, water bottling used the equivalent of 32-54 millions barrels of oil. That's how much it would take to fuel average consumption levels in 1.5 million cars for a year.

Consumers are also often duped about the quality of water. The Sacramento plant is the perfect example -- much of it will actually simply be from the same source as tap. This is true for 40 percent of water bottled in the U.S.

Consumers are paying upwards of a thousand times the price for virtually the same product as tap and are instead putting an extra burden on the environment by using single-use plastic bottles, of which over 80 percent are likely to end up in landfills.

While bottled water companies may spend millions convincing you that you're drinking the cleanest water from pristine mountain springs, the truth is that in many cases, bottled water could be less safe for consumers. The EPA, as well as state and local governments, regulate tap water, but bottled water is checked only by the FDA and the standards are much less strict. Food and Water Watch reports that municipal water systems must test for coliform bacteria 100 or more times a month. But bottled water plants only have to test once a week. 

The impact on local water sources is a big question, too -- such as in Sacramento. "It doesn't make sense," said Tucker of his city's decision, "The city fines people if they don't comply with water restrictions, but Nestle can use as much as they want and pay very little for it."

Because rates aren't tiered in Sacramento, he says, the company has no reason to want to conserve. "Unlike other industrial water users who may use water as a part of their industrial process, like for cooling, their product is water," he said. "So they have a disincentive to conserve."

The Sacramento News and Review reportedin October that one of the mayor's top volunteer advisors, Michelle Smira, was stepping down in order to run her consulting business, MMS Strategies. Guess who her big client was? That would be Nestle.

"It just happens that MMS was hired, over the weekend, by Nestle Waters, to help win hearts and minds, and building permits, for its controversial water bottling plant in South Sacramento," the News and Review wrote. "Johnson has been a major cheerleader for the project, despite concerns among some citizen groups and council members about the bottled water industry and the process by which the Nestle plant has been pushed forward."

City Councilmember Kevin McCarty has been one of the few local leaders to oppose Nestle's project. "At current rates, they would pay the city about 65 cents per 100 cubic feet of water, or 750 gallons," he said. "That works out to a payment to the city of $186 for the 215,000 gallons of water taken on an average day. By the time that water is bottled and put on a grocer's shelf, the consumers would pay more than $2.1 million for those 215,000 gallons -- a profit margin of roughly 10,000 percent!"

Tucker is worried that Nestle has found a new model of operating that draws less heat than its previous plans to build bottling plants in small towns and pilfer rural spring water.

"They've taken the thing that has caused the most problems for communities, building the bottling plant," said Tucker, "and located it in a place like an industrial area of a bigger city, where they can do it relatively easily. They are taking a lot of our municipal water and that is a concern for us, but most people in cities don't worry about their water sources the way rural residents do. We don't have wells that could run dry from pumping plants or aren't concerned with local streams. We just turn on our taps and it comes out. I have a concern that this is a model they'll proliferate."

For many communities, the privatization of water by big companies is becoming an issue that threatens local control of the most vital resource for survival. Groups like Food and Water Watch and Corporate Accountability International are waging campaigns to help communities fight for public control of their water and for clean, safe and affordable tap water for all.

Even Annie Leonard, whose hit Internet film (and now book) The Story of Stuff, has produced a new film (that you can view below), called "The Story of Bottled Water." The film is a call to action to all of us. We don't have to live in a place like McCloud or Sacramento to join the fight against bottled water.

"It's time we took back the tap," Leonard says in the movie. "That starts with making a personal commitment to not buy or drink bottled water unless the water in your community is truly unhealthy. Yes, it takes a bit of foresight to grab a reusable bottle on the way out, but I think we can handle it.

"Then take the next step -- join a campaign that's working for real solutions. Like demanding investment in clean tap water for all. In the U.S., tap water is underfunded by $24 billion partly because people believe drinking water only comes from a bottle! Around the world, a billion people don't have access to clean water right now. Yet cities all over are spending millions of dollars to deal with all the plastic bottles we throw out. What if we spent that money improving our water systems or better yet, preventing pollution to begin with?" 

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.