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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“How did two loggers, two housewives, and a retired insurance salesman get to sell water that belongs to us all?” Connaughton asks, referring to the service district board. She runs a small bookstore, knits in her spare time, and enjoys the town with its mild-mannered residents who wave to each other in passing. Though her first impulse was to flee to a new town, she resisted, and has instead become the leader of the local opposition.

She and her allies are haunted by the thought of a massive facility sitting on the town’s historic mill site, its fluorescent glow intruding on McCloud’s starry nights, and an endless barrage of delivery trucks devastating the mountain silence. Worse, she wonders what the water mining will do to the water table. Nestlé would withdraw 1,600 acre-feet of spring water per year, an amount about equal to the town’s yearly use. Measurements over the past two years indicate that there’s plenty of water to go around — at least 9,000 acre-feet per year flow from the spring. But Steve Bachmann, a local Forest Service hydrologist, says that the unique volcanic hydrology of Mount Shasta, with its lava tubes and springs that can appear and disappear from one year to the next, is poorly understood. No one really knows what effect a severe drought or global warming might have, he says. This uncertainty has drawn California Trout and Trout Unlimited into the fray; the springs feed an important tributary to the McCloud River, a renowned fishing stream and the mainstay of the local tourism economy.

Though the contract requires that Nestlé be treated like any other member of the water district, paying the same rate and subject to the same cutbacks in times of drought, the terms are unsettling. Nestlé can draw up to 1,800,000 gallons of water every day at a cost of just 8 cents for 1,000 gallons. That’s 8 cents for enough water to fill 3,780 Arrowhead 1-liter bottles, each of which can sell for $1.50 or more down at the local convenience store. It’s potentially a huge profit margin, though Palais won’t release an exact figure; it’s protected, he says, “like the Coke formula.” And, for the next 100 years, as the value of water inevitably rises, McCloud will have no chance to look for a better deal: Nestlé’s contract forbids the town from selling water to any potential competitors.

For environmental groups campaigning against bottled water, McCloud makes the perfect poster child. Poised at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, the area sits at a critical juncture for California’s water supply. “Mount Shasta is a symbol of Northern California,” says Ruth Caplan, organizer of the Sierra Club’s Water Privatization Task Force, which fights corporate control of water. The organization uses McCloud as a cautionary tale: Communities should take a closer look at water bottling, activists say, and pass ordinances preventing the bulk export of surface and groundwater. “This is just the beginning,” says Caplan. For her, the war is not over until all communities are granted democratic control of their water.

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