California is in a deep drought. 2013 was the driest year on record in the state. The State Water Resources Control Board went so far this month as to impose harsh restrictions on outdoor water use. (Using potable water in an ornamental fountain? That’ll be a $500 fine.) And somehow, in the middle of all this, Nestle is bottling California’s scarce water and selling it.
The company’s plant in Cabazon, California, leased from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, packages water for the Arrowhead spring and Nestle Pure Life brands. The problem is that nobody knows quite how much water the company is taking, because the Morongo tribe is a sovereign nation and doesn’t have to deal with local water agencies or normal reporting requirements. Cabazon is also in the middle of a Southern California desert ecosystem.
According to the Desert Sun, Nestle Waters did actually submit annual reports on local groundwater extraction until 2009. In 2005, it extracted 595 acre-feet of water. In 2009, the company reported 757-acre feet of water (a little over 244 million gallons) tapped in the previous year. The Desert Sun has asked for tours of the plant numerous times over the past year, to no avail.
Nestle’s operation is far from the only plant in the region to suck up water–there are plenty of resorts and factories that are also guilty of overusing the scarce resource. But bottling and selling water seems like a particularly egregious failure to recognize the drought situation.
Water researcher Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, expressed his concern in the Desert Sun article:
In his 2010 book “Bottled and Sold,” Gleick described the inner workings of the Cabazon plant, which covers an area larger than seven football fields, saying it was producing more than 1 billion bottles of Arrowhead spring water a year. Labels on the bottles list several sources of water, including the spring in Millard Canyon and other springs elsewhere in Southern California.
“The reason this particular plant is of special concern is precisely because water is so scarce in the basin,” Gleick said. “If you had the same bottling plant in a water-rich area, then the amount of water bottled and diverted would be a small fraction of the total water available. But this is a desert ecosystem. Surface water in the desert is exceedingly rare and has a much higher environmental value than the same amount of water somewhere else.”
Nestle has responded to the controversy by saying that it manages its operations “to prevent adverse impacts to local area groundwater resources.” But with little oversight and a closed-door policy to anyone seeking answers, how can we really know?