When my family moved to Southern California in 2007, our lawn was a brilliant emerald green. Now, it’s scratchy, scrubby, and blistered with straw-yellow spots of dead grass. My mom shut down our sprinkler system years ago, when it first became obvious California was experiencing record water shortages.
You know who could learn a few lessons from my mom? Nestle.
Around 30 miles from my house, in the middle of the desert, Nestle Waters North America is bottling millions and millions of gallons of water.
There isn’t a single region in California that’s been hit harder by the drought than the Southern California desert; according to the state’s drought monitor, the area is facing an “exceptional drought,” one level higher than “extreme.”
But at the Nestle plant, “semi-trucks rumble in and out through the gates, carrying load after load of bottled water” to be sold under the Arrowhead and Nestle Pure Life brands.
It gets worse. No one knows exactly how much precious water is being bottled and exported, because the Nestle plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indian’s reservation. The tribe is a sovereign nation, and U.S. laws don’t apply on its land. That means that Nestle isn’t required to report important information like, say, how much groundwater it’s pumping. The plant is also free from the oversight of local water agencies.
Nestle does require a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to transport water across the San Bernadino National Forest. It has one—from 1988. Despite the fact that Nestle’s permit expired 27 years ago, the Forest Service hasn’t reviewed it. The government should be able to give us an unbiased look at the environmental costs of Nestle’s plant, but it looks like that’s not happening.
“The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues,” explained a reporter from The Desert Sun.
The Desert Sun, a local newspaper, has repeatedly asked Nestle for a tour of the facilities. These requests have never been granted. In addition, Nestle and the Morongo tribe refuse to answer any questions.
We do have a few numbers to work with; up until six years ago, Nestle submitted an annual report to a group of local water districts about how much water it was extracting. The amounts ranged from 595 acre-feet of water (in 2005) to 1,366 acre-feet of water (in 2002).
Since the water agency doesn’t have any data since 2009, it’s been using an average of 750 acre-feet, or 244 million gallons, per year.
As The Desert Sun points out, “none of the figures have been independently verified, and it’s also uncertain how much water the bottling plant could be drawing from other local sources.”
Peter Gleick is a water analyst and the author of a book Bottled and Sold. He explains that the issue with Nestle’s bottling habits isn’t just a short-term concern.
“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.”
“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.”
I’m dubious about Nestle’s claim to be “proud” of its sustainability. If the company is operating in a praise-worthy—or at the very least, inoffensive—way, it wouldn’t need to hide its practices from the public eye. Tellingly, Nestle stopped reporting its water exports as soon as it became clear California was suffering from a drought.
Just how bad is the drought, anyway?
The snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, which typically holds around one-third of the state’s water supply, is 88% smaller than the average. We have one year’s worth of water left in our reservoirs. This January was the driest on record. Across the state, we’re losing more than 12 million acre-feet of water—per year. That means in the past three years, we’ve lost around 36 million acre-feet of water.
On March 17 of this year, the State Water Resources Control Board told California residents they’d have to cut back on washing their cars and watering their lawns. This move was more ceremonial than anything: many local ordinances had already established those limits months and years before (not to mention people like my mom, who cut back of their own accord).
So what can Californians and non-Californians alike do to push back against Nestle? We need to stop buying bottled water. Not just Nestle Pure Life or Arrowhead brand bottled water, but all of it.
It’s pretty well-known how much energy and materials are wasted during the life cycle of a bottle of water. However, even if we weren’t using oil, energy, and plastic to make water bottles, we’d still be consuming the precious groundwater reserves. Nestle isn’t the only one; the other companies tapping California’s water sources include Aquafina, Dasani, and Crystal Geyser.
We can’t stop this industry from bottling California’s water while ignoring—or at least not disclosing—the ecological effects. But we can stop buying those bottles—because if there’s no market for bottled water, these companies will stop selling it.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter: @ajavuu.