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California has become synonymous with the word drought in the past four years. With no indication that the drought will end anytime soon, the state has turned to rather desperate measures to keep water flowing. Restaurants are no longer permitted to bring customers water if they do not expressly ask for it, and violators of new water usage regulations are subject to a $500 fine. This situation has become so shockingly bad that Californians have no other choice but to pump water from prehistoric aquifers, just to meet supply needs.
In case you missed it: this is a really big deal.
Yet, amidst California’s growing thirst, bottled water companies still seem to be pumping and packaging water from the San Bernardino National Forest … in California. How is it that a state so drought stricken can afford to pass water supplies to bottled water distributors? Simply put, they can’t (and possibly didn’t even know it was happening).
A recent investigation in the Desert Sun found that Nestlé Waters North America has been pumping water from this pristine streams of this national forest with little to no oversight by the U.S. Forestry Services. While Nestlé has held the rights to extract water from this national park for years, their official permit to transport water from the stream to their bottling plant expired in 1988. Between 1988 and now, tens of millions of gallons of water have been drawn from this stream annually and sold under the Arrowhead 100 percent Mountain Spring Water label. Although Nestlé asserts that they do monitor water levels and the impact on local wildlife, it seems more than a little irresponsible to leave this task up to the company that profits from exploiting this natural resource.
So what’s really going on here?
How Taking Water Supplies Impacts the Local Ecosystem
The impact of California’s drought spans far beyond humans. Native wildlife have also suffered immensely due to lack of food and water resources. Local salmon populations have dropped by 12 percent, deer populations have decreased nearly 75 percent, and waterfowl populations have dropped significantly. The loss of these species has a ripple effect, which can lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem if efforts aren’t made to restore the balance. Seeing as how California would need 11 trillion gallons of water to end their current drought crisis, restoring this balance seems nearly impossible.
In the San Bernardino National Forest, many species rely on Strawberry Creek as a source of water.
Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service employee explained to the Desert Sun that frogs, salamanders, insects, birds such as willow flycatchers and Bell’s vireo are just some of them. During his days with the Forest Service, he saw the Santa Ana speckled dace go extinct from the river after a series of wildfires and floods. Although these natural events played a role in the loss of the species, Loe suspects that if Nestlé had not depleted water levels in the creek to such an extent, the dace would have survived the summer.
Nestlé is required to submit reports on water usage in the park, but the Forest Service has not closely tracked how much water is actually being taken from the creek. When the pipe was first installed around 1906, an environmental impact assessment was not performed and the modern service hasn’t carried out a study to gauge the pipeline’s impact on native wildlife since.
If we do not know how much water is needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem, how can we justify allowing 705 millions of gallons of water to be funneled into bottles, annually? (Especially in the middle of a serious drought, and especially because we don’t need more bottled water or plastic bottles!)
Essentially, Nestlé is pumping millions of gallons of public water from a drought stricken area and reselling it in the form of bottles to consumers. Yes, this is as ridiculous as it sounds.
Bottling water is an incredibly unsustainable business, and if no one (aside from the people profiting) is monitoring how much water is being extracted from delicate ecosystems, then we’re setting ourselves up for disaster.
The Shocking “Unknown” Impact of Bottling Freshwater Supplies
While the Nestlé news in California has garnered a significant amount of media attention, this is hardly the only instance where bottled water companies have taken precedence over local ecosystems.
Crystal Geyser Water Company opened a facility in Mount Shasta in 2014, much to the dismay of local residents, without performing an environmental impact report. Like Nestlé, Crystal Geyser is not closely monitored by the Forest Service but submits water usage reports. According to the Forest Service, the impact of the company’s water use on groundwater supplies and aquifers is “unknown.” Apparently, “unknown” is the new “okay.”
According to the National Resources Defence Council, “Other springs in national forests across the country have been tapped for use by bottled water companies, including Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, Ocala National Forest in Florida, Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. Information on the consequences is hard to come by.”
Converting public waters into private products is a major issue in the U.S., and the lack of transparency is troubling to say the least.
What You Can Do
Over 1,500 water bottles are consumed in the U.S. every second. We are well aware of the role that plastic bottles play in marine pollution, and as we learn about how their production impacts natural resources it becomes clear that we need to find an alternative.
Luckily, we can all help to reduce our personal impact and slow the demand for bottled water by simply opting for a reusable water bottle. A single reusable bottle can replace 167 plastic water bottles a year (and save you a ton of money). If everyone in the U.S. made this one simple switch, we could significantly reduce the demand for bottled water and see a drop in the resources drained from national parks and reduction in landfill waste. Sounds like a pretty good deal to us.
If the Forest Service isn’t going to be accountable for how our public water supplies are used, it’s up to us to pick up the slack. We can all make a difference by being mindful of our consumption habits and their downstream impacts. Making one small switch in our habits can set us up for an exponential improvement.
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Lead image source: Don Graham/Flickr