Especially during a drought, Nestlé shouldn’t use Sacramento’s public water for private profit

Sacramento reduced its water consumption by 13 percent in May compared to how much we used during the three prior years, according to recent reports in The Sacramento Bee. (That’s still 7 percent above the governor’s requested 20 percent, but who’s keeping track?) Still, we are obviously in the middle of the worst drought in a generation.

Some of us are letting our lawns turn brown—or “gold,” as publicists for the state point out—plus shortening our showers, keeping the car dirty, and trying all sorts of other conservation tricks.

Other parts of the state aren’t doing as well. In fact, water consumption in California’s urban south, along the coast from Los Angeles to the border, is actually up 8 percent. That’s unacceptable.

But what’s even more frustrating is realizing that even though Sacramentans are reducing what comes out of our taps and is wasted down the drain, other people in this community are making a huge profit on water.

We’re thinking specifically of Nestlé, the corporate giant that opened a water-bottling plant—over many objections—in south Sacramento in 2009. While it took a while to get up and running, the plant is estimated to bottle more than 200,000 gallons of water per day.

As SN&R pointed out years ago, at the city’s industrial water rate, Nestlé is selling tap water back to us at a markup of at least 1,000 times what the city charges (see “All wet” by Cosmo Garvin; SN&R Bites; May 13, 2010).

There’s an argument to be made that if the tap water is so potable, we should just drink it instead of buying our own water, bottled or otherwise. But that’s not the point: Changing our drinking habits won’t stop the Nestlé bottling plant.

No, it’ll simply ship that bottled water to other markets outside Sacramento, where people will be happy to buy our tap water for a tidy markup of a thousand times what we would have paid for it.

The Desert Sun, a Palm Springs newspaper, recently reported that the Nestlé water-bottling operation in Cabazon is taking water from groundwater wells on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians reservation. Bottling water from a drought area and trucking it to consumers is an absurd enough idea. Tapping into groundwater reserves to make a dollar is not just myopic, it should be criminal. This story was picked up by national outlets, including Salon.

Let’s rewind a bit here: Sacramento, like Southern California, is a drought area, too. The very idea of bottling water and selling it at a markup—whether for local consumption or for export to areas outside the drought zone—is illogical.

At the very least, Nestlé should be paying a premium for our tap water, rather than the industrial rate. Those funds could then go to all sorts of public services, such as providing water and cooling stations for our homeless neighbors.

The drought is more than just a burden to all Sacramentans. Our dearth of water could be a new normal. And it should also be a wake-up call to Sacramento taxpayers: It’s time to come to grips with the reality of water in California. We need to move forward with long-term planning for water sustainability.

Water should be reserved for the public good, not for private profit.