While California suffers another month of extreme drought, Nestlé continues to pump groundwater from Millard Canyon. Though the company reported the volume of its extractions as recently as 2009, since that time it has disclosed neither its yearly extractions nor the volume remaining in the Millard spring.
Nestlé is under no obligation to provide such reports. Its Arrowhead and Pure Life bottling plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians reservation, a sovereign nation exempt from U.S. law. Yet Nestlé ’s continued extractions from the desert region have locals and environmentalists worried.
Linda Ivey, a real estate appraiser in Palm Desert, questions the fairness of pumping water for profit during a time of drought. “It’s hard to know how much is being taken,” she told The Desert Sun. “We’ve got to protect what little water supply we have.”
Everyone is entitled to the water in the Millard spring, says David Luker, the general manager of the Desert Water Agency, but he regrets the lack of oversight on Nestlé’s activities. “I don’t believe there’s any way to force them to fork over groundwater pumping information unless there’s discovery in a lawsuit,” he says. Still, “it’s just a shame that this water is not being used locally. It’s being exported.”
Peter Gleick, author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, says the issue is a simple matter of supply and demand: “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,” he told The Desert Sun. “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.”
In an emailed statement to the paper, Nestlé was adamant about their responsibilities. “We proudly conduct our business in an environmentally responsible manner that focuses on water and energy conservation. Our sustainable operations are specifically designed and managed to prevent adverse impacts to local area groundwater resources, particularly in light of California’s drought conditions over the past three years.”
Tensions between Nestlé and California are high at the moment, but the company has incurred far greater reproach from the international community. Critics have accused Nestle of trying to privatize water sources and market bottled water to the affluent. At the World Water Forum in 2000, Nestle was able to stop water from being declared a universal right. Nestle’s chairman of the board also stirred controversy when he scoffed at NGOs declaring water a public right. “That means as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”
Brabeck has backpedaled on this remark, saying that humans deserve enough water for survival.