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This Is Uncomfortable

U.S. Forest Service sued over a bottler’s water permit

Andy Uhler Oct 14, 2015
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Water is on the minds of Californians. Deep into the state’s four-year drought, water bottlers have become a target for conservation groups. In the latest battle, environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service for letting Nestle pump millions of gallons of water out of a California national forest.

Water bottlers in California don’t use much water, compared with other uses, but they also don’t pay much for it. Nestle, it turns out, pays hardly anything for the water.

When it comes to how much consumers pay for tap water relative to electricity or a cell phone, everyday Americans don’t pay much, either. Junaid Ahmad, senior director of water at the World Bank, said many Americans take water for granted.

“Water is such an emotive and political issue, it’s sort of equated with life, and therefore one does not like to see it as a commodity,” he said. “And yet, by not making it an economic product, you actually misallocate it.”

Around the world, the poor pay much more for water than the average household does in the United States. But now the ongoing drought in the West is making people think about how they use water, said David Zetland, author of the book, “Living With Water Scarcity.”

“People have been promised cheap water, endless water forever,” he said. “And at some point that water has run out.”

Zetland said it will take time to change attitudes and realistically treat water as a finite resource here. But the bottled water industry isn’t the one to blame, he said, it’s just an easy target.

“California, they should be talking about how water’s being used in the environment, or how it’s being used in farmers,” he said. “But instead they focus on one permit in one national forest from Nestle, which is just wrong.”

Agriculture accounts for nearly 80 percent of the nation’s water use. Farmers in California have been hit with reductions. So have the state’s cities.

Ahmad thinks the onus should be on industry — agribusiness and water bottlers alike.

“I think that kind of signal by the big water users, that they’re investing in protecting water sources, whether you’re a Coca-Cola or a Nestle, is good business for them,” he said.

That’s what Starbucks thought. In May, the company announced it would move its water bottling business from California to Pennsylvania.

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