A Dry Demand: Protesters Tell Nestlé to Stop Bottling California Water

Activists gathered at bottling facilities in Los Angeles and Sacramento on Wednesday.

(Photo: Charles Davis)

May 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

“They’re just ruining our planet,” said Patty Shenker, speaking outside Nestlé’s water bottling facility in Los Angeles. “They’re completely destroying our planet for profit, and we’ve got to stop them.”

Shenker, 63, was wearing an orangutan mask—“Animals can’t live without water any more than we can,” she said—and was one of more than 50 people who came out on Wednesday to protest that the world’s largest food and beverage company was continuing to bottle California’s water despite the state facing one of the worst droughts in 1,200 years.

As The Desert Sun reported in March, Nestlé Waters North America bottled 591 million gallons of California water in 2011, when the current drought began; by 2014, it was bottling 705 million gallons, an increase of 17.5 percent. The newspaper also found that Nestlé’s permit to pipe the water for its Arrowhead brand from its mountain spring source and transport it all through the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988. While the company remains in good standing with the U.S. Forest Service, the impact of its actions on local watersheds has not been carefully analyzed in more than 25 years.

“It is outrageous, and it is unethical,” said Laura Leavitt, a spokesperson for Courage Campaign, a progressive nonprofit based in Los Angeles that helped organize the protest. A similar event was held outside a Sacramento facility on Wednesday. Leavitt handed petitions signed by more than half a million people to a representative of Nestlé who came out to acknowledge the protesters’ presence. Those petitions called on the company to immediately halt its bottling of water. The company’s response, Leavitt told me, was a polite but firm no, as conveyed in a letter it gave her.

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“They’re not willing to be accountable and stop bottling now, so we’re going to keep fighting,” Leavitt said. In particular, her organization is lobbying Gov. Jerry Brown for an immediate moratorium on the bottling of water. California has been in a formal state of emergency owing to the drought since January 2014, and after another dry winter, Brown announced mandatory reductions in urban water use in April—a first for the naturally semiarid state. More than 1,900 wells across California are bone dry, while major reservoirs are storing 28 to 82 percent less water than they did prior to the drought.

While the state is cracking down on individuals, with Brown requiring cities to cut water use by 25 percent, the heaviest users of water—industry—have generally been left to continue with business as usual.

Nestlé denies that. “For Nestlé, it’s not business as usual in California and hasn’t been for some time,” said Jane Lazgin, a company spokesperson. She said her employer shares the protesters’ concerns “about the effects this devastating drought is having on families, communities, farms, and businesses.” It has also worked to cut the use of water in the production of its other products, she said, claiming recently announced conservation efforts would save 144 million gallons of water a year. But while Nestlé looks forward to a “thoughtful dialogue,” Lazgin said the answer to California’s drought is “positive collective action,” not Nestlé’s unilateral exit from the business of bottled water.

On that topic, Nestlé CEO Tim Brown has aggressively defended his company, telling Pasadena public radio station KPCC that he would “absolutely not” stop selling California’s water. “In fact, if I could increase it, I would,” he said, arguing his company was only meeting consumer demand that would be fulfilled by a competitor in Nestlé’s absence.

During the same discussion, Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that it takes 30 to 50 percent more water to fill a plastic bottle than to simply fill a cup from a faucet. The production and transportation of bottled water also has a significant environmental impact: According to a report from the Environmental Working Group, the industry used the equivalent of 32 million to 54 million barrels of oil in 2007.

While Nestlé may be standing firm for now, one of its competitors recently decided that bottling water during a severe drought is not worth the public relations grief. “Due to the serious drought conditions and necessary water conservation efforts in California, Starbucks is moving the sourcing and manufacturing of Ethos Water”—its in-store brand—“out of state,” the popular coffee chain announced on May 7.

That move, said Lauren Steiner, shows that activists like her aren’t asking for too much. “Water is a scarce resource, especially in a drought,” she said, “and I think that it shouldn’t be wasted by private corporations who are bottling and selling it out of state, in many cases.” A founder of the SoCal Climate Action Coalition, she’s pushing to have L.A.’s city council ban the sale of bottled water altogether.

That won’t save the planet, either, she concedes: The bottling and sale of water that’s just as good, at a fraction of the cost, from the tap in one’s kitchen isn’t the most egregious waste in a state that continues to have bright-green golf courses in the middle of deserts. The issue does, however, provide an unwanted opportunity to highlight that natural resources “shouldn’t be privately held by greedy corporations to make a profit off it,” Steiner said.

That’s a radical stance in this capitalist world, but as one man repeatedly chanted at Wednesday’s protest, when it comes to the demand that something as vital to life as water not be shipped and sold elsewhere for private gain amid the worst drought in generations, “It’s reasonable!”

Why You Should Care

California is in its fourth year of drought—considered to be the worst since record-keeping began—and the state’s water resources are beyond scarce. The continued dry weather has had a significant effect on agriculture, and cities are working to meet mandatory reductions in usage. The lack of rain and snow affects wilderness and wildlife too. Not only is it troubling that water is being shipped out of California, but thanks to Nestlé’s long-expired pumping permit, the impact on the plants and animals supported by the spring, which is on federally protected land, is unknown.