The War On Public Water

It’s up to us to say no to corporations buying up our public water and selling it back to us in plastic.

In the context of World Water Day on March 22, a report by the World Economic Forum ranked water shortage as one of the top global risks – right up there with widespread financial collapse and terrorism. And a recent U.S. intelligence report predicted that water shortages caused by population growth and climate change could spark terrorism and wars over the next 10 years.

You probably know that many people worldwide don’t have access to sufficient clean water for their daily needs, but the water wars are even in full swing in the U.S., as global corporations such as Nestle, Crystal Geyser, and Coca Cola obtain cheap water rights from strapped municipalities, bottle it, and resell it at a huge profit, turning what should be a human right into a global commodity.

These companies are not only sucking up the water in our natural springs, but, because they are meeting opposition in those efforts, they’ve turned to buying up our tap water, putting it in plastic, and selling it back to us.

Cases all over the country reveal that many of the deals are done in secret when a company buys or leases land from a private owner to access springs, and then makes deals with government officials to build a bottling plant. The company usually promises jobs in exchange for tax breaks, but, according to data provided by Food & Water Watch, the jobs are few (generally fewer than 10 for local residents) and low paying. (below the national average). Once the public gets wind of the deal, they often try to fight it.

In one high profile case in McCloud, California, a small mountain community near Mt. Shasta, Nestlé (which also owns Perrier, Poland Spring, and Arrowhead) gave up after a six-year battle with residents over a bottling plant that would tap the area’s spring water. Opponents had said the deal was done in secret without proper environmental review.

After that case, Nestlé turned to the tap, announcing plans to locate a plant in Sacramento that would bottle 82 million gallons a year of Sacramento’s municipal water supply and sell it to consumers under the company’s Pure Life brand (at a retail value of between $111 and $166 million). The Sacramento City Council and citizens were left out of the deal. Citizens formed a group to stop the plant, but it was unsuccessful and the plant opened in February 2010.

Just this week, it was announced that residents of Cascade Locks in Oregon are fighting a proposal by Nestlé to bottle water from the Columbia Gorge.

The bad publicity is starting to influence company actions. The Crystal Geyser Company recently nixed plans for a plant in Orland, California, after a citizen group sued to stop the plant from being built. To announce the cancellation, the company’s PR spin machine went passive-aggressive with a divisive, finger wagging letter aimed at opponents, essentially accusing them of depriving the good people of Orland of great jobs.

But Nestlé takes the cake for cynical PR efforts. This press release touting Nestlé work to improving watersheds across North America could have been torn from the pages of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom.

Lest you think it’s just big, bad corporations going after public water, it’s not. In Southern Oregon, one individual water speculator is looking to make a buck on the waters of the McKenzie River. In Maine the Passamaquoddy tribe is working to build a plant to manufacture water they plan to siphon from an aquifer on tribal lands.

We’ve only talked about the supply side. On the demand side, there are promising developments that could slow the trend toward privatization of water. In a move that concerned representatives from Coca Cola, The Grand Canyon banned all sales of bottled water earlier this year and several universities are considering or enacting similar bans.

Images: aweidner, jonicdao, brimelow

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.