Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It’s the lack of transparency about the process.
Water bottling plants in California have risen to the top of the drought-news cycle in the past week, and for understandable reasons. First, food giant Nestle came under fire for piping spring water from the San Bernardino National Forest under a nearly 30-year-old, expired permit. Then Starbucks announced last week that they’d be moving their Ethos Water bottling operations from a private spring in Baxter, California, to Pennsylvania.
Now, Crystal Geyser is moving ahead with plans to set up shop in a bottling plant at the base of Mount Shasta, formerly owned by Coca-Cola, filling its slim plastic bottles with private spring water. It’ll join 100+ other facilities of the kind across the state that make arrangements with municipal water suppliers, pipe water from public lands, and/or draw from private springs.
Meanwhile, Californian residents and businesses who get their water from public utilities are facing average mandatory water-use reductions of 25 percent. As terrible optics go, these water bottling operations are right below Palm Springs’ golf courses and Kim Kardashian’s lawn.
But the biggest problem with water bottlers isn’t the amount of water they’re using—after all, just a tiny fraction of potable water supplies in the state fills up plastic bottles. Other industries—agriculture, obviously, but also tech manufacturers, oil refineries, and beer, wine, and soda processing—guzzle exponentially more in an average workday.
No, in the case of companies like Nestle and Crystal Geyser, both of which draw from private wells, it’s more of a lack of transparency.
In general, California asks for almost no record-keeping from private well owners—be they homeowners, farmers, water bottlers, golf course owners, anybody. Although some water districts ask for water logs from aquifer drillers, a lack of statewide groundwater regulations means that pretty much anyone who builds a well can use as much as they like.
And what about the statewide mandate for 25 percent reduction in water-use? It doesn’t really apply to private well owners. Homeowners with wells are still subject to certain water use prohibitions, such as when to sprinkle lawns and wash cars, according to emergency regulations passed on May 5 by the state water board. Commercial or industrial businesses that use private wells are required to “either limit outdoor irrigation to two days per week or achieve a 25% reduction in water use.” But in all cases, there seem to be few plans for enforcement in place.
That’s understandably infuriating to Mount Shasta residents connected to the local water district, which recently required “all major water users and residential customers ... to reduce water usage by 30 percent.”
The other ugly side to the Crystal Geyser story is that because the company is tapping a bedrock-deep, pre-existing well, it can forgo an environmental review, which would determine how its water withdrawal impacts the health of the local aquifer. Again, this unscrutinized approach to groundwater use is partly because California was the last Western state to regulate groundwater at all, when Governor Brown signed into law a slew of protections last fall. It will take decades to see those protections truly go into effect.
“We share the same concerns as all Californians,” Judy Yee, executive vice president of marketing and business strategy for Crystal Geyser, told SF Gate. “Since joining the Mount Shasta community, we have been in regular communication with community leaders, as well as professional engineers and geologists, to ensure our operations are sustainable and will not impact the environment in any detrimental way.”
Yet private well owners have little regulatory incentive to do right by California’s water. Meanwhile, groundwater pumping is causing the dried-out state to rise up like an uncoiled spring.
If Yee is serious, Crystal Geyser—and any company that taps from a private source—would submit, for public review, regular reports on how much water it is using. It would initiate a formal environmental review for its facility. Best of all, it would work to ensure that all Californians—including those who are forced to drink bottled water due to industrial contaminants in their local groundwater—have the clean, accessible tap water they actually need.