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By Daniel Ross
With much of North America still in the grips of a drought going back years, managing dwindling drinking water resources is a pressing topic. And in a year when bottled water sales in the U.S. are expected to exceed soda sales for the first time, Nestlé Waters—a water-for-profit poster child that dominates the bottled water industry, with multiple operations across the U.S. and Canada—is at the front lines of numerous battles being waged in local communities across North America.
Nestlé Waters is at the front lines of numerous battles being waged in local communities across North America.
In recent years, a number of Nestlé's plants have come under heightened scrutiny for all sorts of environmental and legal reasons, like the matter of where all the waste plastic ends up. Plastic bottles are one of the biggest sources of trash in national parks, and parks that have enacted bans have seen a significant reduction in their total waste stream. All the while, water companies like Nestlé have been currying political favors through donations to successfully push back against a wholesale federal ban on the sale of bottled water in national parks.
For Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit based in Tucson, the privatization of water resources is a cause for great concern, "especially the amount of profit in this bottled water phenomenon," she said. "They're basically just taking tap water, putting it into bottles and charging us a lot of money for it. Whereas really, it should be available for all humans to use."
According to some estimates, customers nationwide end up paying between 300 to 2,000 times more for bottled water than for tap water.
Here's a look at six places in the U.S. and Canada where Nestlé's bottled water plans are under fire.
1. Ontario, Canada
A nearly decade-long struggle by campaigners against Nestlé's bottled water operations in Ontario has reached a watershed, with the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change recently announcing a two-year moratorium on new water-taking permits, which includes the bottled water sector.
This means that—pending new permitting regulations—Nestlé can still operate under its expired permit in Aberfoyle and draw some 3.6 million liters of water per day from an aquifer that is soon expected to additionally support the nearby City of Guelph. Water levels in the aquifer are reported to have dropped in recent years.
Nestlé's water-taking permit is also up for renewal next year in Hillsburgh, where the company is allowed to draw about 1.1 million liters of water per day. Again, as a result of the moratorium, the company is unable to perform vital pump tests at a well recently acquired in Centre Wellington.
"These permits are located in highly water stressed areas," said Mike Nagy, chair of Wellington Water Watchers, an environmental nonprofit in Guelph. Nagy said that proposed regulations require water-taking permits to prove and factor-in a variety of considerations, including their benefit for future generations, their accumulative impacts, as well as the effects from population growth and climate change.
"Nestlé likes to argue that it only takes a small percentage from the watershed, but that's a smokescreen," said Nagy. "What they're actually doing is taking a lot of water from very small areas. In Aberfoyle, for example, they're very big users."
2. San Bernardino, California
While Nestlé's critics have made headway in Ontario, campaigners in Southern California have hit a wall. Last year, a Desert Sun investigation revealed how Nestlé had been drawing water from Strawberry Creek, in the San Bernardino Mountains, using a permit that had expired 28 years prior.
A group of environmental organizations subsequently filed a lawsuit arguing that the Forest Service had, for the duration of Nestlé's expired permit, illegally allowed Nestlé to pipe water from the creek for miles over National Forest land. Last year alone, Nestlé drew some 36 million gallons of water from Strawberry Creek, paying just $524 a year for the permit. But this past September, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service.
All the while, Strawberry Creek, a perennial waterway, has been running dry, said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the Courage Campaign, a California-based progressive grassroots advocacy group. "It's way below what it needs to be to be healthy to sustain the environment and the flora and fauna, and it only continues to get worse," he said. "The rains we had last winter didn't impact this area at all, and so, it's not like things are on the upswing."
The legal wranglings are far from over, however. The State Water Resource Control Board, which operates under the authority of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is believed to be reviewing Nestlé's water rights to Strawberry Creek. The Forest Service is conducting an environmental review of Nestlé's new permit application. And Courage Campaign attorney Rachel Doughty said in an email to AlterNet that an appeal of the district court's decision is "anticipated."
3. Cascade Locks, Oregon
A ballot measure that could have opened the door for Nestlé to open a commercial bottling plant in Hood River County, Oregon, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters this past May. But the door is still left ajar.
The proposed plant would tap water from Oxbow Springs, in the town of Cascade Locks, the residents of which voted in favor of the project. It is the only precinct in the county to do so. Over the next few years, if a complicated transfer of water rights unfolds with Cascade Locks eventually claiming control of Oxbow Springs, then it's feasible that Nestlé could see its plans in Oregon come to fruition.
"If Nestlé gets in and gets water from Cascade Locks, then Nestlé has successfully compromised and corrupted the state," said Kathleen Fitzgerald of the Local Water Alliance, a group of Hood River County residents campaigning to protect the local water supply from bottled water companies.
Proponents of the project have said that the environmental impacts from the proposed plant at Oxbow Springs, in the Columbia River Gorge, will be offset by the some 50 jobs created in an area with high unemployment. Fitzgerald argues differently.
The plant has the potential to affect water levels in a nearby sanctuary, vital for migrating salmon seeking cool water, some of which remain there for months at a time, she said. "And the Columbia River is the second most endangered river in the U.S.," she added. "It's already compromised by dams and by [pollution] … Taking more water from it would only stress it even further."
4. Stanwood, Michigan
A near decade-long dispute between Nestlé and environmental campaigners was resolved in 2009 when the bottled water company agreed to nearly halve the amount of water it drew from a spring that fed the nearby Dead Stream and Thompson Lake watersheds, after it was determined that Nestlé's operations adversely impacted their ecologies and water levels.
A little over seven year later, however, the reverse is happening. Nestlé is attempting to more than double the permitted amount of water it can pump from another spring in a nearby county that local environmentalists say feeds bodies of water equally as threatened as those involved in the 2009 lawsuit.
"They're being impacted already," said Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. "They're drawing down two cold-water streams. There's already no trout left in one of them—they were trout streams—and there are places where it's dry already."
Nestlé is looking to increase its permitted water drawing capacity from 150 gallons a minute to 400 gallons. Though last year, the company began drawing 250 gallons per minute from the well without any permit needing to be issued. It's all part of a $36 million dollar expansion of Nestlé's bottling plant in Stanwood, which is expected to create 20 new jobs.
"Nestlé's making a huge profit out of this water at the same time that there are people in Flint and Detroit who don't have water," said Case. "It's just criminal."
5. Sacramento, California
In March and December of last year, campaigners formed a human barricade around the entrances to Nestlé's bottled water plant in Sacramento, in an attempt to hold the plant hostage for the day. Their main complaint: Nestlé's permit to bottle some 80 million gallons of water a year in one of America's most drought-stricken regions.
Nestlé bought 52.9 million gallons from the capital's municipal water supply in 2015—less than one percent of total water demand within the city, argues Nestlé. The company also sourced approximately 32.4 million gallons in 2015 from five separate springs in the northern part of the state. On its website, Nestlé writes how it conducts regular monitoring of these springs, looking at things like recharge, water withdrawal and water levels. Robert Saunders of the Crunch Nestlé Alliance, an activist group that impaired operations at Nestlé's Sacramento bottling plant in in March 2015 and October 2014, disputes these claims.
He points to NASA data showing parts of the San Joaquin Valley sinking by nearly 2 inches every month due to the over-pumping of underground aquifers—as well as the reduction in water levels of Strawberry Creek—as proof that Nestlé's monitoring programs don't work. "People don't understand, aquifers don't come back," said Saunders, who himself was a link in last year's human barricades. "You drain them significantly, they don't recharge."
6. Phoenix, Arizona
Next spring will mark the unveiling of Nestlé's bottled water plant in Phoenix. According to Nestlé, the plant will buy (at the same rate as metered commercial water users) some 35 million gallons of water each year from the state capital—less than one percent of the city's total water usage. The company says the plant will also create between 40 and 50 new jobs.
Phoenix draws its water from four main sources, including Arizona's Salt and Verde rivers, as well as from a diversion in the Colorado River, which snakes down through Arizona from Lake Mead. Because of water levels in the lake reaching record lows and the ongoing drought parching the west, campaigners argue that even though the city has water reserves that can act as a cushion during dry periods, the city still needs to be vigilant with its water.
While Nestlé has made a lot of enemies in several North American communities, it's worth noting that the company isn't the only one that taps local water resources to support its business model. Sarah Porter is the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute. While she is a critic of the bottled water industry, she believes it's wrong to point the finger squarely at Nestlé.
"This is a manufacturing operation like many other manufacturing operations in the valley that use water," she said. "Some of these businesses will use a lot more water than the Nestlé bottled water plant will. Nobody is looking into that. Nobody's looking into the craft beer companies and all kinds of other water-using businesses."
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.