As Drought Stricken Californians Cut Back, Corporations Get a Pass
Now that California's drought has entered its fourth year, Governor Jerry Brown is finally cracking down on state municipalities, and is trying to get them cut back at least 25% of their water usage. With the threat of water shortages looming, many residents are quick to point fingers at California's agricultural industry.What with almond growers sucking up 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year, and the beef industry using 106 gallons of water for every ounce of meat, it looks like many Californians are ready to throw both small farmers and Big Ag under the bus.
However, this state's water problems aren't just relegated to agriculture. It's now become common knowledge that for decades, California has allowed beverage companies to bottle public water with little oversight. What most people are just now learning is that, to extract this water from public land requires a permit, and water bottle companies like Arrowhead have had their permits expired since 1988.
Last month, California newspaper The Desert Sun published an investigation revealing that Nestlé Water’s permit to transport water across the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling has been expired since 1988. On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would make it “a priority” to reassess the permit, and that it might impose as-of-yet unspecified “interim conditions” on the bottling operation in light of the severe drought, The Desert Sun reports.
The fact that Nestlé has continued its massive water-bottling operation while the state struggles with crippling water shortages has become a sticking point for activists. A petition demanding Nestlé immediately stop bottling and profiting off California water has drawn 27,000 online signatures and counting, and last month activists reportedly blocked the entrances to Nestlé’s bottling plant in Sacramento.
Another investigation published last year by The Desert Sun found that after 2009, Nestlé Waters stopped submitting annual reports to local water districts about how much groundwater the company extracted for bottling. Since then, the local San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency has listed “a rounded estimate” in its own reports of 750 acre-feet, or 244 million gallons of water, extracted by Nestlé per year, according to the Sun. Reuters reports the company drew 50 million gallons from the Sacramento area alone last year.
So not only did the state government allow these permits to lapse, but they've allowed these companies to stop reporting their water usage. Isn't that interesting? In fact, there are 108 bottling facilities in California (far more than any other state), and nobody seems to be keeping track of how much water they use.
Keep in mind though, as bad as this sounds the amount of water that is being bottled is actually quite miniscule compared to agricultural and residential usage. The real issue here, is that this lack of oversight is very indicative of the state's cozy relationship with corporations.
Think about it. Most government agencies are sticklers for record keeping, and often rely on permits and licenses for revenue. They would never let one of us get away with this. If you or I tried to drive a car with a lapsed drivers license or tried to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, you can bet your bottom dollar that if the government finds out, you're going to be in a lot of trouble. They'll probably extract more money from you in fines and court fees then they ever would if you had paid for these permits.
But if you're a corporation, they'll just shrug and let it slide. And therein lies the real problem with California's water crisis. There's a big difference between not receiving enough rainfall, and not having enough water. One may be caused by an act of nature, while the other is likely caused by mismanagement and backroom deals.
This state has decided that, rather than pricing the water what it's really worth and letting the chips fall where they may, they can just allocate it (or ignore unpermitted usage) to whoever they want. If you're a major corporation with more cash than God and more lobbyists and lawyers than you can shake a stick at, you get a pass. But if you're just an average Joe, you get the shaft. Enjoy your long hot showers, because it's going to cost you.
This sets a frightening precedent. It's almost like the state government can use water as a weapon. They can give it away for free to their powerful friends, or they can restrict it for any individual or community that won't play ball (either by fines or by physically turning off their access). They're giving certain companies an unfair advantages while screwing over everyone who isn't important enough to them.
This does not bode well for the future, especially if this drought does not relent.