Bottling plant gets a pass

A loophole in a new groundwater law could be a boon for Crystal Geyser

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This article originally appeared on Water Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the California drought, you can sign up to the Water Deeply email list.”

Crystal Geyser has plans to launch a new beverage bottling operation in Mount Shasta. In response to California’s drought, locals there cut water use by about 40 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to officials. However, an exemption in newly drafted groundwater regulations could give the giant company leeway to use unlimited water from the community’s underground supply. The company has sworn it will take an insignificant volume of water from the ground and that local wells will not be affected.

The concern among locals, however, is that there is nothing in the law that will curtail Crystal Geyser’s use. That’s because the city of Mount Shasta’s groundwater supply is considered to be a “volcanic basin,” not an “alluvial basin”—a geologic distinction that carries significant consequences under a set of new water use laws.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the newly passed legislation celebrated as a potential fix to the state’s aquifer overdraft problems, addresses only alluvial basins. Alluvial basins occur mostly in low-lying valleys, where substrate like sand or gravel is saturated with large volumes of water that flows in from upslope sources. SGMA’s new regulations are based on Bulletin 118, a Department of Water Resources list that names several hundred of the state’s important groundwater sources. All are alluvial basins.

Tim Godwin, an engineering geologist with the California Department of Water Resources, says there are two basic types of groundwater sources recognized by scientists—alluvial basins in valley areas, where river sediments have accumulated for long periods of time, and aquifers in mountain regions, where the ground consists mostly of solid or fractured rock.

“It’s very difficult to understand connectivity and flow in these basins,” Godwin said. “So, as you start to enter into the fractured rock areas, like around Mount Shasta, you have combinations of conditions that make understanding how the groundwater behaves really challenging.”

Roughly 98 percent of the state’s groundwater use comes from alluvial aquifers, Godwin says, meaning few people will be affected by the exclusion of volcanic and fractured rock aquifers from SGMA.

But for Californians who depend on mountain groundwater deposits, the exemption of such basins from the widely heralded new groundwater management laws seems an egregious omission. In the Mount Shasta region, the water that flows just below the surface ultimately winds up in the Sacramento River system—an increasingly troubled ecosystem in which native species are vanishing and on which millions of people, and vast sprawls of farmland, depend.

“Leaving the Sacramento River’s source region out of SGMA is like trying to cure peripheral vascular disease without addressing the heart,” said Vicki Gold, who lives just outside of the city of Mount Shasta.

Godwin says aquifers that won’t be covered by SGMA may still be monitored and regulated by county officials. But Gold says she and other locals don’t trust that county authorities will do so in a fair way.

What’s more, even if Siskiyou County wishes to bar Crystal Geyser from pumping the region’s groundwater, the beverage giant may have its way with local water resources through a new business-friendly trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP has been drafted through years of negotiations between the United States and 11 nations surrounding the Pacific Rim, and it could be activated this year. The partnership will work as a boon to economic growth and will essentially allow multinational business ventures to skirt local regulations.

Since Crystal Geyser is owned by a Japanese pharmaceutical firm called Otsuka, the Mount Shasta beverage bottling project could be protected from any restrictions imposed by state or county laws.

Nancy Price, the national co-chair with the Alliance for Democracy, says the TPP will allow corporations to sue governments in a TPP-specific court if any laws infringe on the profits of foreign-owned ventures.

“What if groundwater sources are reduced or springs near Mount Shasta go dry after a really severe drought, and if the community decides that the amount of water taken for the bottling plant impacts these resources and needs to be reduced?” asked Price. “The Japanese corporation that owns Crystal Geyser could sue the county by taking a case to protect their ‘investor rights’ in a secret international trade court that bypasses our U.S. court system and allows for no appeal.”

Raven Stevens, the community liaison for the Mount Shasta Gateway Neighborhood Association, moved to the area four years ago but has talked with many of her neighbors about groundwater quality and reliability in recent years. She says at least six wells within half a mile of the bottling plant went dry or almost dry between 2005 and 2009. In 2010, the beverage maker left town.

“Then everyone’s water issues went away and didn’t even return through the worst drought in history,” she said.

Greg Plucker, community development director with Siskiyou County, says no records exist of resident complaints about groundwater supplies during Coca-Cola’s use of the bottling facility. Moreover, he says a review by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2001 determined that extracting 450 gallons (1,700 liters) per minute from the aquifer below the plant would not negatively influence local groundwater supplies. He says Crystal Geyser has plans to use much less than that.

Steve Burns, with the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which represents Crystal Geyser, confirms this. He says the plan is to draw 80 gallons per minute—or 115,000 gallons per day—from the site’s production well and, perhaps in several years, if the project is successful, double that use. Never, he says, will water use on the Crystal Geyser site approach what Coca-Cola pumped from the ground.

Stevens believes this is misinformation. She says that an additional domestic well on the property will have the capacity to take up to 320 gallons per minute. Eventually, she warns, Crystal Geyser’s project will be pumping at least the volume of water that allegedly drained locals’ water supplies seven years ago.

“There is nothing legally stopping them from taking all the water they want,” she said.