Nestle takes about 25 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest under a permit that expired decades ago. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP)
At Bloomberg Businesweek, Caroline Winter visits Nestlé’s bottling plant in Mecosta County, Michigan to analyze how the multinational corporations targets small communities with promises of jobs, and buys up public land to gain control of water resources. Nestle sold $7.7 billion dollars worth of bottled water last year, making it the world’s largest bottled water company. It made that money partly by paying a pittance for its product. Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service only $524 a year to draw 30 million gallons of public water in San Bernardino, California, and Nestlé pays the city of Evart, Michigan just $250,000 a year for its water. Consumers drink bottled water because they assume it’s safer than tap, but that makes us complicit in what many analysts and activists warn is the gradual privatization of water. These multinational corporations don’t have the public’s best interests in mind, activists warn. If anybody should own water, it’s the public.
Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.
Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But it rankles many because the natural resource gets hauled out of local watersheds for private profit, not used in the service of feeding people or keeping their lights on. There’s also, of course, the issue of plastic pollution.
In the U.S., Nestlé tends to set up shop in areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws. States such as Maine and Texas operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called “absolute capture,” which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want. Michigan, New York, and other states have stricter laws, allowing “reasonable use,” which means property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system. Laws vary even within states. New Hampshire is a reasonable-use state, but in 2006, the municipality of Barnstead became the first nationwide to ban the pumping of its water for sale elsewhere.
The median home price in California has reached $500,000 — more than double the cost nationally — and a new brand of housing crisis is here. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to afford a home in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or any surrounding suburbs. As today’s New York Times reports, this means people like Heather Lile, a nurse making $180,000 a year, live in distant Central Valley towns like Manteca and commute two hours to get to work. “I make really good money and it’s frustrating to me that I can’t afford to live close to my job,” she tells the reporter. Read more…
In the early twentieth century, a booming Los Angeles was separated from the river in three decisive steps. First, an aqueduct was built more than 200 miles north to water to the city from the Sierra Nevada—a move mythologized in the movie Chinatown. Then, the city took control of all water rights on the river. Finally, the river was encased in concrete after rampaging floods in the 1930s; it became a drainage ditch, shunting water as quickly and efficiently as possible to the ocean.
Rivers are forces of nature, but over time, humans have learned to harness their power and change their course — often for the worse. Here are four stories on how humans have changed local and regional river systems, and the disastrous and sometimes deadly consequences. Read more…
The sun was going down in East Porterville, California, diffusing gold through a thick and creamy fog, as Donna Johnson pulled into the parking lot in front of the Family Dollar.
Since the valley started running dry, this has become Johnson’s favorite store. The responsibilities were getting overwhelming for the 70-year-old: doctors visits and scans for a shoulder she injured while lifting too-heavy cases of water; a trip to the mechanic to fix the truck door busted by an overeager film crew; a stop at the bank to deposit another generous check that’s still not enough to cover the costs of everything she gives away; a million other small tasks and expenses. But at the Family Dollar she was singularly focused, in her element. Read more…
Disgust has deep psychological roots, emerging early in a child’s development. Infants and young toddlers don’t feel grossed out by anything—diapers, Rozin observes, are there in part to stop a baby “from eating her shit.” In the young mind, curiosity and exploration often overpower any competing instincts. But, at around four years old, there seems to be a profound shift. Suddenly, children won’t touch things that they find appalling. Some substances, especially human excretions of any sort, are seen as gross and untouchable all over the world; others are culturally determined. But, whether universal or culturally-specific, the disgust reactions that we acquire as children stay with us throughout our lives. If anything, they grow stronger—and more consequential—with age.
When it finally rains, it pours. With all the focus this week on the “storm of the decade,” it’s easy to forget that California has experienced its most severe drought in the last 1,200 years. In fact, growing up in California, everyone always told me to conserve water — from my parents to my teachers to my camp counselors. We’re in a drought, they would say. As a child, I could never quite grasp what that meant, as I lived in a suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula, seemingly far from the regions that relied on water to live and work, to produce the crops we ate — that I ate.
Here are five perspectives on California’s water war, from one journalist’s report from the farms of the Central Valley to an ever-resonant essay on water by Joan Didion, written 35 years ago.
Alan Heathcock travels to the Central Valley: one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world — and ground zero of the water crisis. In his “tour of destruction,” he meets owners and workers on century-old family farms and orchards, documenting the stories and hardships of a community struggling in one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. As one couple, living on farmland for 38 years, says: “This is our broken dream.” Read more…
The global almond boom is being fueled in part by sleek marketing campaigns that have made almonds the nut of choice for consumers. Subway stations in China are blanketed with billboards proclaiming almonds to be a heart-healthy snack that makes people “perpetually feel good” (almond exports to China have more than doubled in the past five years). In Korea, California almonds have been integrated into the storyline of a popular prime-time television show. And in Europe, French and British TV personalities have lauded almonds as a healthy alternative to processed foods.
In the United States, almonds have become a staple for many health-conscious consumers. In its raw form, the “power food” is said to lower cholesterol, spur weight loss, and provide powerful antioxidants such as Vitamin E and manganese. Products like almond butter and almond milk have also become increasingly popular in health food stores.
But growing almonds in an arid climate requires lots of water. In fact, Westlands’ almond orchards suck up nearly 100 billion gallons of water a year. Cotton, by contrast, needs 40 percent less water per acre, and tomatoes require about half as much water as almonds.
Also, unlike cotton and tomatoes, almonds are a “permanent” crop, meaning the land they’re grown on can’t lie fallow when water is scarce. “It means farmers really do need to get a hold of water in dry years in order to keep the trees alive,” explained Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and an expert on water.
Mulholland began looking throughout Southern California for an alternative supply of freshwater, but it was Fred Eaton who came up with a solution. On a camping trip to the Sierra in the early 1890s, Eaton had gazed down upon Owens Lake and thought about all the freshwater flowing into it and going to waste. Yes, Los Angeles was some 200 miles away, but it was all downhill. All one would have to do to move it to the city was dig some canals, lay some pipe and let gravity do the rest. Furthermore, he realized, several streams flowing out of the Sierra could be used to generate hydroelectric power. Imagine, a 200-plus-mile aqueduct running downhill to L.A. and “free” power to boot! Over the next two decades, as his civic interest joined his personal financial interests, Eaton grew increasingly evangelical about Owens Valley water.
In September 1904, he took Mulholland to Owens Valley with only “a mule team, a buckboard, and a demijohn of whiskey,” Mulholland later recalled. Despite the hooch, it was the water and not the whiskey that made a believer out of Mulholland. He readily endorsed Eaton’s proposal to build an aqueduct. Eaton, meanwhile, was buying water options from Owens Valley ranchers and farmers whose pastures bordered the river, without disclosing the city’s plan. He also purchased a 23,000-acre cattle ranch in Long Valley, most of which he hoped to sell to the city, at a tidy profit, for use as an aqueduct reservoir.