Communities Speak Out: Nestle, Stop Stealing Our Water


Editor's Note: In the lead-up to Nestlé's annual shareholders' meeting this April 23rd, a storm is gathering around the business practices of the world's largest water bottler. Communities across the country have long been engaged in struggles with the bottling giant over control of local water resources. Now many of these struggles are coming to a head and a national campaign called Think Outside the Bottle is using April Fools Day to call on the corporation to, "stop fooling with community water supplies."

To begin bottling in communities, Nestlé has been engaged in everything from costly public relations campaigns and legal challenges to backroom deals for water rights.

Below, is the transcript of a call where people from different communities across the country affected by Nestlé share what is happening where they live.

Deborah Lapidus:   Welcome everyone, and thanks for making the call.  My name is Deborah Lapidus, and I'm the National Organizer with the Think Outside the Bottle campaign.  The campaign is a Corporate Accountability International-led initiative to galvanize support for public water systems and expose the abuses of the bottled water industry.

At the forefront of these abuses is the fact that all across North America, Nestlé, the world's largest food and beverage corporation, is staking claim to community water resources.

In the days leading up to its annual shareholders' meeting, Nestlé is looking to increase the number of bottling facilities it owns, making yet another run at bottling Mt. Shasta water over community opposition, looking for new sites in New England despite the recent passage of local moratoriums on water bottling, securing loopholes in the Great Lakes Compact to continue to export water from Michigan, and expanding its Florida operation despite drought conditions.  
As you'll soon hear, these water grabs are ruining streams, ponds, wells and aquifers near many of the bottling facilities. Nestlé's practices are raising serious questions about who should be allowed to control water, our most essential resource, and to what end.

At a time when so many are tightening their belts, Nestlé must stop fooling people into believing its brands are something we all should be spending hard-earned dollars on.  The fact is, behind the glossy labels there's a corporation that is bent on taking a shared resource from communities and selling it at an overwhelming markup to the rest of us.  And what goes in the bottle is generally less regulated than what we can all get from the tap, without the waste and unnecessary expense.

But instead of heeding community concerns, Nestlé strikes backroom deals, runs manipulative PR campaigns to put a green veneer on its brands, and challenges residents who voice their opposition through costly legal battles.  

For years Nestlé has employed a range of tactics to wrest water rights from rural communities and downstream users, keeping its abuses out of sight and out of mind of the public.  But, affected communities are now making it clear this is a pattern that needs to stop.    

At this point I'd like to introduce today's speakers who will provide updates on the latest developments on Nestlé's incursions into communities from the communities themselves. We'll start with Arlene Kanno with Concerned Citizens of Newport, Wisconsin, then Terry Swier from Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in Mecosta County, Michigan, then Debra Anderson of the McCloud Watershed Council in McCloud, California, and finally Anne Wentworth from Protect Our Water and Wildlife Resources in Shapleigh, Maine.  Hi, Arlene. You could ahead and tell us what you experienced with Nestlé in Wisconsin.

Arlene Kanno:    Yes.  It was about the year 2000 and I'd like to describe our experience with Nestlé at that time.  It was disbelief in our community at first then tension and then real upheaval and then we realized that we had to do a constant mad scramble to preserve our quiet lifestyle here in rural Wisconsin. 

We have scenic rolling fields, wetlands with graceful sand hill cranes and herons.  We have foxes.  We have coyotes and even on rare occasions a transient bear.  What we think of as technology and business here consists mostly of an infrequent tractor or a milk truck on our narrow town roads and the last thing we ever dreamed of was a sprawling bottling factory and massive wells sucking down our ground water level. 

So, how did this happen?  Nestlé, which was then called Perrier Group of America muscled itself into our community.  It foresaw $1 million a day sales of a product that cost the company essentially nothing and that was bottled so-called spring water.  Nestlé promised to bring jobs to the area and they kept repeating the philosophy that development equals progress.  It looked like our local zoning might be up for sale.  However, many citizens when they found out what was happening, they valued our natural setting and they saw through all the corporate lies and they were insulted by tactics such as offers of money to local officials and an offer of money to the PTO of the little tiny school in the area. Nestlé also bought the prize calf at the county fair and got their picture in the paper.  This was really insulting to people. 

However, the issue divided neighbors and even families because some of them apparently stood to gain financially but others of us would lose our beautiful environment.  Now Nestlé, to make it brief, they abandoned their efforts only after we had massive grassroots action here.  We realized that Nestlé was really after something that was very precious to us. 

So, what we did included creating and distributing two videos.  We garnered the support of many environmental organizations particularly from Madison and the rest of Wisconsin and we had four years of grants from foundations that Concerned Citizens of Newport got. 

Finally, as part of our public education project, we got legal assistance, a lot of it was pro bono and this delayed Nestlé's quest for profit sufficiently that Nestlé turned away from Wisconsin.  We regret that our so-called success was to Michigan's detriment because what they did was they went to Michigan. 

Now, our grassroots group here in Wisconsin, Concerned Citizens of Newport, is continuing to monitor Nestlé's efforts because they repeatedly show up on the Wisconsin State Board of Ethics website as sustaining lobbyists in our state capital and their intention is to influence our ground water legislation which sounds very ominous to us and so that, in a nutshell, is what happened in Wisconsin.

Deborah Lapidus:    Great.  Thank you, Arlene.  On that note, we will move over to Terry in Michigan.

Terry Swier:    Hi, Debra.  What Arlene said kind of makes me think that she's talking about Michigan because the same thing happened there and as Deborah said, I'm Terry Swier, the president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.  We're a grassroots environmental group with over 2,000 members.  Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation continues its fight to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for today and for generations to come. 

Over eight years ago, MCWC organized, stood up to and challenged a large corporation, Nestlé that wanted to bottle our spring water and ship it to other states and countries for its own profit.  Our lives have changed since Nestlé came to Michigan with plans to pump 720,000 gallons per day of spring water from a private hunting preserve, pipe it to its plant, bottle it and ship it out of the Great Lakes Basin for its own profit.  Nestlé's pumping has lowered a stream, two lakes and adjacent wetlands. 

MCWC, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, has spent over a million dollars in court cost and lawyer and environmental expert fees.  Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation has taken Nestlé to court to prove that water belongs to the people and ask for adjustment of Nestlé's pumping levels to prevent environmental impacts.  Nestlé has continued to run communities dry in more ways than one.  MCWC is again heading back to circuit court in July 2008 to ask the judge to adjust Nestlé's pumping limits.  Friendships had been severed as people took sides in the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation versus Nestlé battle.  Nestlé did interrogative telephone polling, asking questions about MCWC and its president.  Nestlé sent private investigators to homes of people who had signed MCWC's referendum asking intimidating questions.  Nestlé has threatened a potential strategic lawsuit against public participation known as a slap suit against my son.

Throughout all of these, Nestlé proposed to be a good neighbor company to our area yet it continues to pump at high rates during periods of lower precipitation and recharge.  Nestlé actively pursued and was granted tax breaks, grants and numerous favors in spite of its poor environmental record and its exportation of water from Michigan.  Nestlé is here to stay - they want us to believe.  Thank you.

Deborah Lapidus:    Thank you so much, Terry.  Debra Anderson in McCloud.

Debra Anderson:    Hi, Debra.  My name is Debra Anderson and I'm the president of the McCloud Watershed Council, an organization whose mission is to protect the Greater McCloud River watershed.  My story is somewhat similar to Arlene's and Terry's just with everything that they said, the division they caused in our town, trying to get tax breaks, just everything.  Our community was really shocked when in 2003, our local McCloud Service District, it's the governing body of McCloud, approved a 100-year contract with Nestlé for our town's spring water. 

A special town meeting had been called to discuss the Nestlé project and many people came out so that they could actually understand what the project was, voiced their concerns and their comments and get questions asked and people were just like I said shocked when at the end of that meeting, the gavel was struck and the contract was signed for 100 years.  Many felt that the public profits had been circumvented and that the deal was actually struck behind closed doors with Nestlé prior to the meeting. 

This contract was egregious for numerous reasons.  Not only did it give Nestlé the right to 1,600 acre-feet of spring water but it also gave them an unlimited amount of ground water.  It was an unheard of 100-year contract for less than a tenth of a cent a gallon.  This project would add over 600 truck trips a day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to our beautiful two-lane scenic volcanic highway.  That meant that a truck would be leaving McCloud every three minutes around the clock.  They would destroy our historical mill site by tearing down all of the remaining historical buildings and McCloud is known to being a historical mill town.  Not only would they be changing the integrity of our town but also our way of life but most of all, this contract was taking the control of our water away from the local people.  Nestlé had truly treated our community as though we were a third world country and this all came on the guise of boosting our economy by creating jobs which, in reality, were too few jobs for too little pay. 

We organized and with the help of a very strong contemptuous letter from the attorney general to our local board concerning the project, we finally after years got Nestlé to withdraw the original contract, but now, the supposed good neighbor is trying to push their way in again with a new proposal.  They just don't seem to get it.  We know that in light of Nestlé's track record in other states and all the lawsuits that they're involved with around the country that the best thing that can happen to McCloud is for Nestlé to go away.  Thank you.

Deborah Lapidus:    Thank you so much, Debra.  Finally, we'll hear from Ann Wentworth in Maine.

Ann Wentworth: 
   Hello.  This is Ann Winn-Wentworth and I do want you to know I am vice chair of POWWR which is Protecting Our Water and Wildlife. Our area, a small little town, would have been site number nine for Nestlé. 

In February of 2008, Nestlé began public hearings in Shapleigh to pave the way for large scale water extraction from our local aquifer which is on a 4000-acre Vernon Walker Land Preserve and it was discovered that those monitoring wells had been there for over three years and none of us were made aware of it.  This is on land that must remain in its natural state.  It was purchased with federal funds to always remain in its natural state.  Many of us care deeply for this preserve and we're [up in arms] to learn that the State of Maine who manages this land would allow a foreign corporation to go in, cut trees and install wells without any notification.  Both towns, Shapleigh and Newfield, share this preserve and we were gravely concerned. 

We formed our group, Protecting Our Water and Wildlife, and began educating anyone that would listen.  I called the DEP at the state and the EPA and they simply said, "We can't help you; there's nothing they could do."  We then worked night and day and weekends, talking, going to the dump, talking to people on street [unintelligible], talking with the media and attending all community events to try to educate.  Many battles ensued with Shapleigh Boards because the selectmen were siding with Nestlé.  They felt jobs would be created but Nestlé told me at the hearings, there will be no jobs; this will simply be a bore well in the ground. 

We eventually got petition signed and placed a moratorium on for 180 days and then had to call a special town meeting by a notary which was rarely done in our state but that was accomplished with the vote for water rights and local self-government which passed overwhelmingly in both towns.  Through the strength of our voters, we now have the ammunition in place to defend our water rights.  Nestlé was labeling us as the "Culture of No" but we began using that in our press as the "Culture of Know" and we faced monumental resistance with Nestlé painting their story of how green and warm and fuzzy they are. 

They made their biggest mistake by actually driving to the school with one of their very large water trucks and people appeared and surrounded it and what happened was they actually saw the size of them, right by the two schools where they would have been passing by. At that point, the citizens turned to our side and they made their own mistake by doing that.  At this time, with water rights and local self-government, on our books, Nestlé is now saying they will just walk away which is hard to believe.  I have emailed the DEP to enforce removing the monitoring wells and have received no action.  I've talked with our representative and he's going to speak to the chairman who oversees the DEP and try to force those wells out of our land preserve.  Nestlé is now working every day at our state house and for the first time in Maine, we now have fourteen pending water bills to be voted on in our house and we are hoping that our representatives will listen to the people.    Thank you.

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