How much water is Nestlé pumping out of California’s aquifers? The short answer is, we don’t really know. The longer answer is, before the drought, no one thought it was important enough to ask.
Here are the facts: California is in the midst of a record-breaking drought, now in its fourth year, that has seen our snowpack dry up and our reserves plummet. NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti has estimated that there is one year’s worth of water left in the state’s reservoirs and, in the Central Valley, so much water is being pumped from the ground that it’s actually causing the land to sink.
Throughout California, 28 small communities have revolved in and out of waterlessness. In Arvin, a small town in Kern County, they do have water, but it’s so contaminated with arsenic that they need to have fresh water brought in. It’s a problem shared by over a quarter of a million people in the state, and Aljazeera reports that aging infrastructure has similarly contaminated another 340 California systems. Over 100 areas have been cited for arsenic violations.
So now, while some communities have poisoned water and others have no water at all, Governor Jerry Brown has introduced a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use.
Meanwhile, Nestlé is allegedly draining up to 80 million gallons of water per year from Sacramento aquifers.
Protesters Shut Down Nestlé Plant
On March 20, protesters from the “Crunch Nestlé Alliance” stormed the company’s water bottling plant in Sacramento with plastic torches and pitchforks. For all its bombast, the protest was a peaceful one that ended by 1 PM and with no arrests. However, it drew attention to a serious concern shared by many Californians: Is pumping so much groundwater sustainable over the long term?
If you ask NASA’s senior water scientist, Dr. Famiglietti, the answer is a definitive “no.” And that goes for the rest of the planet, too. In October 2014, Famiglietti published a research paper in the journal Nature Climate Change that claims global groundwater resources are being drained faster than they can be replenished.
In a 2013 TED Talk, Famiglietti explained that the issue of water scarcity has reached the point where it is now “too big” and “too complex” to be conquered. “We passed too many tipping points with respect to climate change population growth, human behavior,” he said, “to turn this very complicated situation around.”
But even if the problem cannot be fixed, Famiglietti is hopeful that it can be managed.
So where does that leave California and Nestlé? The same place we left them a few paragraphs ago.
According to Salon, Nestlé is pumping groundwater from at least a dozen locations throughout the Golden State. The company has a 25-year contract with the Morongo Band of Cahuila Mission Indians to draw water from their Millard Canyon wells, where they’re pumping an estimated 200-250 million gallons per year.
In 2012, Nestlé Waters North America, earned $4 billion in revenues. The fact that a portion of that money comes from selling water taken from California aquifers to Californians – water that Californians could otherwise get for free – is somewhat mind-boggling, but so is the concept of bottling water in general (at least in the United States).
What had Sacremento protesters so up in arms was the fact that Nestlé is allegedly paying 65 cents for every 470 gallons it drains from California. “This corporate welfare giveaway is an outrage and warrants a major investigation,” said “Crunch Nestlé” spokesperson Andy Conn.
Meanwhile, how much water Nestlé is really pumping remains a mystery.
“For more than five months we have requested data on Nestlé water use,” said Conn. “City Hall has not complied with our request, or given any indication that it will. Sacramentans deserve to know how their money is being spent and what they’re getting for it. In this case, they’re getting ripped off.”
Why Don’t We Know Where Our Water Is?
The simple answer is, because no one was paying much attention until now.
Here’s one particularly salient example: A recent investigation by The Desert Sun found that Nestlé’s permit to transport water across the San Bernadino National Forest expired in 1988, but the U.S. Forest Service has done zero followup or review. They – and, consequently, we – have no idea what impact that’s had on the local ecosystem. Tens of millions of gallons of the forest’s water has been transported out of the forest, bottled and sold under the Arrowhead brand.
The Desert Sun further discovered that:
- “No state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by all of the bottled water plants in California, or monitoring the effects on water supplies and ecosystems statewide.”
- The California Department of Public Health regulates 108 bottled water plants in the state, but “does not require companies to report how much water they use.”
- In some cases, records of water use are considered confidential and are not available to the public.
- Though the USFS has not bothered to track Nestlé’s water use or even review its permit, it has prohibited cabin owners in the San Bernadino Forest from drawing water from a creek.
This lack of regulation isn’t just a California problem. It’s a nationwide problem.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Other springs in national forests across the country have been tapped for use by bottled water companies, including Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, Ocala National Forest in Florida, Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. Information on the consequences is hard to come by [emphasis added].”
It’s easy to blame Nestlé for exploiting what appears to be a shamefully incompetent state apparatus, but Californians are just as guilty. At present, there are an estimated 38.8 million people living in the state, all supporting the seventh largest economy in the world. Yet despite California’s mighty $2.2 trillion revenue, to believe that this land, in this climate, can support this prosperity forever is a dream.
As Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California, recently told The New York Times, “Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here. This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”
Last year (the hottest in California’s history), the state’s massive agricultural sector sacrificed $2.2 billion to the drought. And that’s despite the fact that farmland consumes 80 percent of the state’s water. Farmers are now desperately pumping their groundwater reserves – reserves that, inevitably, will tap out.
Right now, California needs 11 trillion gallons of water just to get out of the drought. And given that our rainy season is now over, and our Sierra Nevada snowpack is about six percent of what it should be, it appears our wakeup call has arrived.