Into the water
Warning: Communities may fight back against privatizing of their public resources
When I moved to a new apartment last year, I accidentally left behind my Brita water filter. That was pretty traumatizing. For the next five months, I drank unfiltered tap water, not especially fond of the taste but never getting sick to my stomach or anything like that, which isn’t to say our water is sparkling clean.
I, like many others, mistrust our public water supply, and not without reason. Hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, arsenic, iron, sulfur and other toxins have been found in municipal water systems throughout the United States. However, during those months, I refrained from drinking bottled water—an act not done self-righteously, but to tighten my money belt.
Later, I learned about the high environmental, social and moral costs of bottled water.
My most recent schooling came from a report released earlier this month by Food and Water Watch, a consumer-advocacy group. “All Bottled Up: Nestlé's Pursuit of Community Water” is the first significant attempt to comprehensively document community backlash against Nestlé, the top company in the bottled-water industry in the world.
The report begins with the story of McCloud, Calif., a small town of 1,300 people located on the eastern slope of Mt. Shasta, about an hour north of Redding. I’ve never been there and don’t know anybody who has, but this unassuming place became a hotbed of controversy a few years back, after Nestlé Waters North America expressed interest in Squaw Valley Creek, seeing in the pristine waters a goldmine.
Water battles typically play out in small towns, maybe because these places seem easier to push around (in actuality, they’re not). Take Fryeburg, Maine, a rural town of about 3,000 residents that Nestlé sued over the retraction of a permit to build a tanker station, which was the setting for Elizabeth Royte’s book Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.
The company made $9.93 billion in worldwide sales in 2007, and makes up one-third of the market share for bottled water in the United States. The Switzerland-based company owns 100 factories in 38 countries, which produce 72 brands of water, including Arrowhead, Poland Spring and Calistoga.
According to The Economist, as noted in the Food and Water Watch report, “Five big food and beverage giants—Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone—consume almost 575 billion liters of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet.”
Removing large quantities of groundwater from a region has the potential to alter the flow levels of springs, lakes, rivers and drinking-water wells, and lead to loss of wetlands, damage to aquatic habitat, temperature increases and exposed bottomlands. Also, in terms of environmental costs, American consumers disposed of 30 billion bottles in 2006, and hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic end up in U.S. landfills each year.
But back to McCloud. In 2003, Nestlé negotiated a contract with the local utilities district for the rights to extract and bottle 500 million gallons of spring water annually, and use unlimited amounts of groundwater in its operations. The company would pay McCloud $350,000 a year and build a 1-million-square-foot water-bottling facility.
There were a few problems with the plan: Nestlé would pay less than its fair share for water; and the plethora of plant jobs Nestlé promised residents would not pay a living wage and would only be available during the peak season—and not until four to 10 years after construction.
Furious residents sued Nestlé and the district because the project didn’t include an environmental-impact report, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. A back-and-forth legal battle has halted construction for five years now (although Nestlé says it will go forward once the revised EIR is completed in two to three years).
Ultimately, the biggest finding from the Food and Water Watch report is that when it comes to the privatization and exploitation of an essential public resource, communities are fighting back.
And every time I drink (filtered) tap water instead of bottled water, I hope I’m upping their chances to win.