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Ban Bottled Water? Industry Scrutinized in Parched California

CNBC's Jane Wells reports California bottled water has been targeted by protests in wake of the state's drought emergency.
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Thirsty? Drink tap water.

That's the message being pushed in parched California, where companies such as Swiss food giant Nestle are bottling for profit water that they pipe from public lands, pump from the desert, and draw from municipal water supplies as citizens are asked to curtail their own water consumption.

"In a historic drought like we are having, it just seems like a really, really poor use of a scarce resource," said Eddie Kurtz, the executive director of the California-based Courage Campaign which is petitioning the California Water Resources Control Board to immediately shut down Nestlé's water bottling plants.

The campaign, he said, "is a gateway, an opportunity for us to engage people" in a broader dialogue about water management in California.

Nestlé Waters North America welcomes the dialogue, according to spokeswoman Jane Lazgin. "We are in the water business, so in our own self-enlightened interest we want to be sure that we are good conservators of water and good stewards of water," she said.

'Obvious user of water'

A shut down of operations in California, Nestlé explains on its website, "won't fix the drought."

The company's five bottled water plants and four food factories in the state collectively consume about 1 billion gallons of water each year, which amounts to 0.008 percent of the 13 trillion gallons of annual water use in the state.

"We are a very obvious user of water," Lazgin said, but added that bottled water is relatively benign compared to other uses, including other packaged beverages. It takes 1.32 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water, which includes the water in the bottle itself, according to the International Bottled Water Association. [Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated the amount of water needed to create a liter of bottled water.]

Some 870 liters of water are required to produce a liter of wine, including the water used to grow grapes, according to the Water Footprint Network, a non-profit. A liter of beer takes 298 liters of water, including water to grow barley.

Last week, Starbucks announced that it would begin a process to move the bottling operations for its Ethos water brand to Pennsylvania.

"It is true that the total amount of water bottled in California is a tiny fraction of total water use in California," Peter Gleick, the president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank that focuses on water issues, said.

"But it is also true that that tiny number compared to the big number can hide local impacts and it doesn't absolve bottlers of the overall negative consequences of the bottled water industry."

Expired permit

Concerns about the impact of California's bottled water industry boiled over after an investigation by the Desert Sun, a Palm Springs newspaper, revealed this March that Nestlé has been piping spring water from the San Bernardino National Forest with an expired permit since 1988 and raised questions about potential impacts on the ecosystem.

The permit in question is one of approximately 4,500 expired permits in the region including 1,200 that "involve some level of water usage," Forest Service spokesman John Heil explained in an email to NBC News.

The backlog, he added, is due in part to the priority given to new infrastructure projects funded by various government economic stimulus initiatives.

The attention on Nestlé's permit bumped it to the front of the pile for renewal review. The process will take at least 18 months, Heil said. Meanwhile, Nestlé can continue to operate in the forest as long as the company continues to pay the annual fee of $524 on the expired permit and operate under its provisions.

"Even though it is allowable, there is just something that feels really wrong about it," Jay Famiglietti, a water expert with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the University of California at Irvine, said of Nestlé's ability to continue operating in the National Forest.

"The whole issue really points to the archaic nature of water rights in California," he said. "The water rights that we honor have been in place over centuries and what fit 100 or 200 years ago no longer fits today."

Lazgin said Nestlé regularly monitors the impacts of its operations at the San Bernardino site and elsewhere in the state to ensure its spring water supply chain remains healthy and reliable. "We have a stake in all of this too," she said. To date, she said, the company's water sources remain healthy.

Other water woes

Nestlé's bottled water plant on lands leased from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon, a desert area between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, is also under scrutiny for its potential impact on the local environment.

"They are taking groundwater from the desert, which is a really fragile ecosystem … that is already showing a lot of damage from the drought and from groundwater depletion," said Kurtz of the Courage Campaign.

A key concern in Cabazon is a lack of transparency about the amount of water taken from the area to supply the bottling plant, said Gleick. He wrote about the operation in his 2010 book Bottled and Sold, which explores the rise of the bottled water industry.

Michael Fisher, a spokesman for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, said via email the tribe "strictly monitors the tribally owned wells used by the plant" and as part of a "groundwater sustainability program … that puts hundreds of thousands of gallons of water back into the local basin every year."

"The ongoing drought," he added, "has led Morongo and Nestlé to further strengthen our existing conservation programs that carefully manage water use to ensure the reservation's water resources remain healthy. Morongo takes environmental stewardship extremely seriously."

Nestlé also faces scrutiny over its continued use of municipal water from Sacramento for a bottling plant there while all members of the community are being asked to trim their water consumption.

Meanwhile, environmental activists and legislators in Oregon are pushing Governor Kate Brown to block a water-rights transfer that would allow Nestlé to tap a spring water source near the Columbia Gorge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses for a nearby salmon hatchery.

Drought a 'bigger problem'

According to Gleick, these are all "legitimate issues" and it makes sense that they would percolate in the public's mind in the midst of a devastating drought.

"We as a society need to regulate the bottled water industry and require the companies to reduce their impacts," he said. "But that is not going to solve the problem of the drought. The drought is a bigger problem, a much bigger problem in terms of water supply."

Chief among the issues to tackle, he said, is the inefficient use of water in agriculture and urban areas. That means a re-think of how crops are irrigated, what crops are best suited to grow in California and an end to ornamental lawns throughout the West.

Water bottlers are keen to play a key role in this dialogue. After all, the bottled water business is booming – consumption has grown from 1.6 gallons per American in 1976 to 34.2 gallons in 2014, according to Chris Hogan, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association.

What's more, he said, market analysts are "projecting that by the end of next year, 2016, bottled water will replace soda as the number one packaged drink in the United States."