Fears about water supplies spur opposition to bottling companies

Curtis Knight, of California Trout Inc., walked on a bridge crossing Squaw Valley Creek near McCloud, Calif., last month. A bottling plant deal could affect the creek's water flow. Curtis Knight, of California Trout Inc., walked on a bridge crossing Squaw Valley Creek near McCloud, Calif., last month. A bottling plant deal could affect the creek's water flow. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Samantha Young
Associated Press / April 13, 2008

McCLOUD, Calif. - The lumber mill closed five years ago, and so many families moved out that the town can no longer even field a high school football team.

But McCloud is hoping to turn things around by exploiting the other natural resource in abundance along the icy flanks of Mount Shasta - water.

The town of 1,300 people in far Northern California struck a deal with Nestle in 2003 under which the Swiss company would build the nation's largest water bottling plant to tap three of the many springs on the mountainside and bottle up to 521 million gallons of water a year.

The project is still awaiting an environmental review from the county and could be several years away from approval, having run into opposition from scientists, fishermen, conservationists, and some members of the community 280 miles northeast of San Francisco.

But others in town are growing frustrated by the delays and want to see something - anything - to replace the lumber mill that was driven out of business by the logging restrictions that have hurt the timber industry across the Pacific Northwest.

"When they had the mill, this town was jumping," said homeowner Paula Kleinhans. "As soon as the mill closed down, people moved, they lost their jobs, and now there are no children here. It really needs industry here."

Similar disputes are playing out elsewhere around the country as water becomes an increasingly precious commodity - and a major source of legal and political controversy - because of drought, booming population, and the popularity of bottled water.

From California to New Hampshire and Florida, corporate giants such as Nestle, Coca-Cola , and Crystal Geyser are looking for new sources of water and running into resistance.

Supporters of bottling plants see them as a vital source of jobs and revenue. Others fear that pumping large amounts of water from the ground will drain wells, creeks, and streams.

"It's no longer this limitless resource," said Elaine Renich, a commissioner in Lake County, Fla., where California-based Niagara Bottling LLC wants to pump water from the region's shrinking aquifer. "It's beyond me how you can expect people to conserve water and you turn around and say a water bottling plant is OK."

In New Hampshire, residents are trying to block New Hampshire-based USA Springs from pumping more than 300,000 gallons a day from 100 acres it bought.

"They are people who want to bully their way in and take our water," said Barrington, N.H., resident Denise Hart.

Opposition in Wisconsin forced Nestle to abandon plans by its Perrier subsidiary to build a $100 million bottling plant near Wisconsin Dells. In Michigan, about 200 miles northwest of Detroit, residents are engaged in a similar legal dispute against Nestle.

Bottled water is a $10.8 billion-a-year industry in the United States, with demand growing 8 percent a year. California is home to an estimated 40 percent of the nation's 300 water bottling operations.

Under the agreement negotiated by McCloud's sole governing body, an elected board that oversees water, roads, and sewers, Nestle is promising 240 jobs and payments of as much as $390,000 a year, depending on how much water is removed.

The company and the board say the town will still have more than enough water for itself. Preliminary reviews have shown that the pumping plant would have minimal environmental effect.

Opponents say not enough study has been done. Among other things, they say, it is not clear what the pumping would do to the streams.

Some could become slower or warmer, perhaps harming the trout, scientists say.

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