Despite drought, California is still bottling water for export

May 13, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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There is an old saying “as goes California, so goes the nation.” If that is true, I would say that the nation had best strap on its seat-belt for some hard-times ahead R#8212; and some battles over resources between ordinary citizens and big corporations.

California is currently four years into the worst drought in recorded history. While the word “drought” gives the impression that this is a short-lived, inconvenient condition with which we have to live for a little while, things are actually far more serious.

NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti recently warned that California’s water reservoirs have just one year remaining before a catastrophic collapse. In his own words, as published in the LA Times:

The state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought…[groundwater] pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable…Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

It isn’t just that no fresh water, via rain or snow, is coming into California, but that underground aquifers and other former backup sources are also running dry. According to research published in the journal Science, the entire western United States has lost an astounding 240 gigatons of water since 2013, an amount equivalent to a billion tons.

UC Santa Cruz Professor Lisa Sloan co-authored a 2004 report in which she and her colleague Jacob Sewall predicted that the melting of the Arctic ice shelf would cause a decrease in precipitation in California and hence a severe drought. The Arctic melting, they claimed, would warp the offshore jet stream in the Pacific Ocean.

Just as they anticipated eleven years ago, the jet stream has indeed shifted, essentially pushing winter storms up north and out of California. As a result, the snowpack in both the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, which feed water to most of Southern California and the agricultural Central Valley, has all but disappeared.

This is the state’s worst drought since record-keeping began in the mid 19th century, and scientists say this may be just the beginning.

Entering a thirsty era

B. Lynn Ingram, a paleoclimatologist at the University of California Berkeley, thinks that California needs to brace itself for a megadrought—one that could last for 200 years or more. At present, “100 percent of the state is in drought, with 82 percent of the land designated as in ‘extreme’ or ‘exceptional’ drought, the highest levels on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale,” explains the National Journal.

California’s water supply comes from two main sources: surface water, or water that travels or gathers on the ground, like rivers, streams, and lakes; and groundwater, which is water that is pumped out from the ground. Herein lies the problem. Lacking a cohesive statewide groundwater policy, California is wide open for multinational corporations to legally obtain water rights to the groundwater on their privately owned properties. And, they are not inclined to be particularly considerate neighbors.

Let’s look at an example that is currently unfolding in Mount Shasta, California. Mount Shasta has historically supplied water to many Central and Southern California communities. Its abundant snowpack has made it a natural reservoir providing steady, slow release of water throughout the hot summer months. Mount Shasta, however, has not had significant snow for the past two years (so little, in fact, that the ski parks in the area have not even been able to open and operate for more than a few days).

Nonetheless, Crystal Geyser Water Company has announced plans to start bottling sparkling mineral water this Fall, adding other drinks later. And, due to the lack of a groundwater regulatory system, there nothing in place that can tell Crystal Geyser how much they can pump. Adding to the state’s insufficient regulatory policies on groundwater management, a section of Siskiyou County’s groundwater ordinance (dating to 1998) requires a permit for the extraction of groundwater to be transported outside the area, but there is an exemption for bottled water (yes, you read that correctly!) The city of Mount Shasta’s regulations include a similar exemption.

At a recent City Council meeting, it was announced that Crystal Geyser will need, during its startup, the amount of water that it takes to irrigate 30 acres of alfalfa per day. After it is at full capacity, it will require three times as much water. Let’s do some math. Alfalfa needs up to 0.4 inches of water per day during dry, windy, summer heat when it isn’t also being nourished by underlying groundwater.

Thirty acres, therefore, needs 12 acre-inches or 1-acre feet of water per day (30 acre x 0.4″ = 12 acre-inches or 1 acre foot). One acre-foot equals 325,853 U.S. gallons.

When operating at full announced capacity with three bottling lines, Crystal Geyser will need to pump, therefore, approximately 978,000 gallons per day (325,853 x 3), a figure which is very close to the estimated 1,000,000 gallons per day figure reported in the EDA grant application documents.

Most recently, residents of the village of Mount Shasta have been outfitted with water meters. This, in concert with Governor Jerry Brown’s imperative to reduce consumption by 25%, ipso facto requires area residents to limit water use. Erstwhile, there are no limits imposed upon Crystal Geyser; they may be allowed to pump at full capacity with absolutely no mitigations or monitoring.

Water plutocracy

This amounts to what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism”—a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. This is very much the case with our example, as the Mount Shasta City Council will be accepting $3 million from Crystal Geyser to connect to their wastewater treatment facility. The wastewater treatment plant must comply with state mandated upgrades amounting to $16.5 million partially in order to accommodate the new bottling plant. Additionally the ratepayers may be charged for the upgrade of the 7400 feet of Interceptor Line from the Crystal Geyser plant to the treatment plant–which, essentially, amounts to corporate welfare.

Further, in inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.

Again, our example is borne out as the corporate entity has convinced the local people that they will offer jobs and, thus, stimulate the local economy. (It should be noted that Crystal Geyser’s hiring policies do not bring many new jobs into an area. The better jobs are traditionally filled by people that the corporation moves in from other plants, while the line jobs are, historically, temporary part-time positions with low wages and no benefits.)

An inverted totalitarian position is in direct opposition to the ecological principles that have, in previous years, been part and parcel of the very fabric of California. While once an ecological safe-haven that understood that environmental philosophy must necessarily recognize the values that inhere objectively in nature, independent of human wants, needs or desires, California’s state government is fast becoming a shill for large corporate interests.

Even though climate change may cause other parts of the United States, including much of the East Coast, to grow wetter even as California grows drier, you can be sure that states across the country will be caught in a tug-of-war over water and other resources as the climate gets weirder. And don’t be surprised if those state governments side more and more with big special interests over the majority of the people.

— Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice

Tags: bottled water, California drought, climate change