July 13, 2007 Features & Images » Feature Story

Watershed moment 

A former California timber town becomes ground zero in the battle over bottled water

click to enlarge Nestle Representative. Dave Palais speaks to a small group at the site of a planned bottled water plant in McCloud, California. Photo by Lucas Mobley.
  • Nestle Representative. Dave Palais speaks to a small group at the site of a planned bottled water plant in McCloud, California. Photo by Lucas Mobley.

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Americans drink more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water every year, spending more than $11 billion annually on Dasani, Aquafina, Evian and other brands. With a growth rate of 10 percent per year, bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry, surpassing milk and likely to outpace soda in the near future. Bottling plants are popping up everywhere, many in rural areas that boast of pristine spring water.

Though often heralded as a clean industry, water bottlers have not been welcomed in some communities. In Mecosta, Mich., citizens won a lawsuit against Nestlé after proving its operations harmed nearby streams and wetlands. Similar battles have erupted in Florida, Texas and Maine. Activists routinely attack the industry as a whole because of its contribution to landfill overflow and because it commercializes what many see as an essential human right. Still, the fight has been slow to ignite in the West, where communities, often reeling from the loss of one extractive industry or another, have generally welcomed the economic promise of bottlers with wide-open arms.

California is now home to more water-bottling facilities than any other state in the nation. Some suck water directly out of springs; others filter the municipal water supply. Nestlé alone has plants scattered from Calistoga, in Napa County, to the Morongo Indian Reservation on the fringes of Los Angeles. In the northern part of the state, Crystal Geyser, Mt. Shasta Spring Water and Dannon are already in operation.

So, when Nestlé’s natural resource manager Dave Palais first arrived in McCloud four years ago, the stage seemed set. His affable nature and casual dress went over well with locals. But when the five-member district board unanimously signed the contract without public review, the love affair abruptly ended. The town was split down the middle like firewood.

Though bottling was nothing new to Northern California, a confluence of factors had merged in McCloud to galvanize opposition to the Arrowhead plant. In addition to the sheer size of the facility and length of the contract, McCloud is the gateway to Mount Shasta and to celebrated fishing streams, making it a charismatic destination for tourists along the I-5 corridor. Over time, many of its blue-collar residents have been replaced by urbanites attracted to the scenery and the prospect of a quieter and cleaner life. Janet Connaughton, who moved here from Marin, fits that profile. She’s in shock over the contract.

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