Something in the water

Mayor Kevin Johnson last week trumpeted news that Nestlé Waters North America is opening a brand-new bottled-water plant in south Sacramento. “It adds another international company to the constellation of firms calling Sacramento home,” Johnson said in a press release.

And what an international company it is!

Nestlé has a track record of pissing people off wherever it chooses to stick its great big water-sucking straw. For years the company was involved in a nasty fight 230 miles north of here, in McCloud, Calif., where residents worried the company would suck their aquifer dry for a fraction of a cent per gallon. And Nestlé has been heavily criticized for privatizing water supplies in the developing world. Rap star turned activist Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA of the Beastie Boys, said of the company last year, “They lock down water as a commodity they can buy and sell. It’s terrifying.” When he said it, Yauch was in a pissing match with Nestlé over a film he had just produced, Flow, a documentary about water privatization that was called the “scariest film at Sundance” by Wired magazine.

But Bites digresses. Back to the happy talk: “During these tough economic times, this company will not only bring jobs to the city, but it’s also nice to have a reaffirmation that many firms still see Sacramento as such a desirable location,” Johnson explained.

What do we get? Forty jobs and $14 million invested in the new plant. And why wouldn’t Nestlé think Sacramento is desirable? After all, they’re going to buy our tap water for cheap and sell it back to us in plastic bottles for 1,000 times what they paid for it. Why wouldn’t they love us?

The company is going to bottle about 150 acre-feet of water every year at its south Sac “microfactory.” (If you’re not sure how much an acre-foot is, imagine a high-school football field in Natomas, under a foot of water.) Some of that water will be trucked in from springs in the Sierra foothills, to be bottled and sold under the Arrowhead brand. But most of it, about 90 acre-feet, (or 30 million gallons), will be bottled and sold under Nestlé’s Pure Life brand.

According to Chris Kemp, Nestlé’s newly minted Sacramento plant manager, our perfectly wet and tasty tap water will be filtered by reverse osmosis, disinfected and then pumped up with a “proprietary mineral formulation,” before being sold in the Bay Area and Central Valley. Bites asked if this proprietary mineral formulation was for added nutritional benefit, or for flavor, or both. Kemp said neither, it’s in there to make our water taste like, er, water. That is to say, to make it taste the same as the Pure Life that comes out of plants with taps in other towns.

Nestlé will pay the city’s industrial rates for water: $.9854 for every 748 gallons, according to Kemp. Down at the local Safeway, a 24-pack of half-liter bottles of their water-flavored water fetches $3.99. That works out to about $38 million paid by consumers for about $37,000 worth of tap water, with some packaging, shipping and press releases thrown in.

The Sacramento news didn’t escape the notice of, a blog which has been monitoring opposition to the company’s water privatization efforts in McCloud, and in communities like Fryeburg, Maine, and Evart, Mich., where Nestlé just settled a years-long legal battle with residents, agreeing to limit its withdrawals from the local watershed.

“Nestlé’s gotta be celebrating this one,” the blogger wrote of the Sacramento deal. In fact, some local communities have laws against the sale of public water to corporations for resale, and towns like McCloud have fought hard against deals similar to what Sacramento is getting from Nestlé. “Every other new Nestlé Waters bottling project is facing a mortifying amount of opposition, yet this deal was apparently done in just a few months.”

Must be something in the water.