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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Still at work on the dinner train, Patty Ballard is worried more about paying the rent for her subsidized apartment and raising her son than about drying wetlands and global warming. “It’s like worrying about Armageddon. I don’t want to think about it. You’ve got all this stuff going through your brain. Is there going to be a big flood? Is the volcano going to blow?” She characterizes the plant’s opponents as urban refugees who want McCloud to be a meditative retreat. Her friend, Sheri Burris, agrees: “McCloud wasn’t meant to be quiet.” Burris has deep roots here; her father worked as the head oiler for the mill powerhouse back when McCloud was a timber town. The big wheel that turned the generator sits inert on the lawn behind the town’s timber museum.

The two friends have formed the McCloud Grassroots Committee; they host meetings with Nestlé supporters that fill Burris’ house. They’ll agree that the contract with Nestlé is a bit long. They’ll admit to some fear of big corporations. But the bottled water is just too good an opportunity to pass up. Burris fears that without it, the town she grew up in will die.

But the opposition won’t go away either, despite the recent blow from the state Supreme Court. Opponents have attacked the draft environmental review, which doesn’t address impacts on fish and aquatic life and leaves a number of other questions unanswered. The county is expected to either hand down a final review and decision, or start the review process over this summer. In the meantime, the “antis” plan to keep fighting, here and elsewhere. They see McCloud as a precedent-setting case that could affect watersheds across the West. “There is nowhere to run,” says Connaughton. “This battle is going to be everywhere.”

The author writes from Ashland, Oregon, where citizens just rejected a city charter revision that contained loopholes allowing for the sale of water for bottling from Ashland Creek.

This article was first published in High Country News. It was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

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