Watershed moment

A former California timber town becomes ground zero in the battle over bottled water

  • Nestlé representative Dave Palais speaks to a small group at the site of a planned bottled water plant in McCloud, California, below Mount Shasta

  • Some fear that Squaw Valley Creek, known for its rainbow and brown trout, could suffer when the new plant goes in


MCCLOUD, CALIF. - It’s already late morning, but the wide streets are empty. Patty Ballard pulls her ’88 Chevy van into the parking lot of the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, where she lugs bus tubs for a scant living. Back in the days when McCloud was a booming timber town, the train was laden with logs. Now it’s a mainstay of the local tourism economy, winding diners around the flanks of Northern California’s imposing Mount Shasta.

When the ailing timber industry toppled in 2002, McCloud turned to tourism. But the economic statistics remain as bleak as an empty sawmill: Since the 1960s timber heyday, the town’s population has dropped by half. Per capita income is less than $16,000. Last year, the graduating class at McCloud High School totaled one. Despite the hopeful sheen of espresso shops and bed and breakfasts, McCloud sometimes feels like an emptied-out museum. But things could be different.

In September 2003, the unincorporated town’s governing body — the McCloud Community Service District — signed a contract with Nestlé Corp. allowing it to build a million-square-foot plant and bottle up to a half-billion gallons of local spring water per year for its Arrowhead brand. The plant, which would sit on the old mill site, would employ 240 people, and Nestlé’s fees and payments of $300,000 per year would increase the town’s operating budget by one-third.

In a place where water is so abundant that residents hose their driveways in winter to melt snow and ice, cashing in on what was going to waste seemed like getting something for nothing. Ballard was enthusiastic: “I’ll be first in line for a job,” she said.

But four years later, Ballard still works on the dinner train, and the bottling plant remains no more than a blueprint. Soon after the contract was signed, a group of local citizens questioned the plant’s potential effects on their community — its water supply, its quiet character and its world-class fishing streams. And they were outraged at the terms of the contract, which bound them for the next 100 years. The group won a lawsuit in Siskiyou County Court, and the contract was nullified because it was signed prior to the completion of an environmental review and therefore violated the California Environmental Quality Act. But Nestlé appealed, and won. In May, the California Supreme Court refused to hear the case. But the controversy refuses to die. Now the opponents are attacking the proposal from other fronts. And this little town in Northern California, still traumatized by the timber squabbles of the past, has become the opening battleground in a West-wide war over bottled water.

Americans drink more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water every year, spending more than $11 billion annually on Dasani, Aquafina, Evian and other brands. With a growth rate of 10 percent per year, bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry, surpassing milk and likely to outpace soda in the near future. Bottling plants are popping up everywhere, many in rural areas that boast of pristine spring water.

Though often heralded as a clean industry, water bottlers have not been welcomed in some communities. In Mecosta, Mich., citizens won a lawsuit against Nestlé after proving its operations harmed nearby streams and wetlands. Similar battles have erupted in Florida, Texas and Maine. Activists routinely attack the industry as a whole because of its contribution to landfill overflow and because it commercializes what many see as an essential human right. Still, the fight has been slow to ignite in the West, where communities, often reeling from the loss of one extractive industry or another, have generally welcomed the economic promise of bottlers with wide-open arms.

California is now home to more water-bottling facilities than any other state in the nation. Some suck water directly out of springs; others filter the municipal water supply. Nestlé alone has plants scattered from Calistoga, in Napa County, to the Morongo Indian Reservation on the fringes of Los Angeles. In the northern part of the state, Crystal Geyser, Mt. Shasta Spring Water and Dannon are already in operation.

So, when Nestlé’s natural resource manager Dave Palais first arrived in McCloud four years ago, the stage seemed set. His affable nature and casual dress went over well with locals. But when the five-member district board unanimously signed the contract without public review, the love affair abruptly ended. The town was split down the middle like firewood. 

Jul 02, 2007 04:45 PM

July 2 - We had big news today on the proposed Nestle plant in McCloud. In a major victory for the McCloud River, Nestlé asked Siskiyou County to conduct additional environmental analysis and prepare a new Draft Environmental Impact Report before moving forward. Trout Unlimited, CalTrout, and the McCloud Watershed Council were among those who submitted strong comments challenging the draft environmental review. The three groups met with Nestle executives from California and Connecticut to propose additional studies they should prepare before moving forward. Nestle announced today that they agreed. From the original environmental review, it was impossible to say what effect the plant would have on Shasta-area springs or the renowned McCloud River fishery. Nestlé’s agreement to start over is a significant decision, because it gives us all a chance to find out what the consequences would be. The press release is here: http://www.tu.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=7dJEKTNuFmG&b=2422697&ct=4058613 

Brian Johnson, Director of Trout Unlimited’s California Water Project

Jul 03, 2007 06:05 PM

Nestle's contract with the town of McCloud is a rapacious one, and the article ignores several other aspects of that plant that some of us find objectionable. 

For example, the roads surrounding the town simply can't handle the 500-600 truck trips per day that are forecast, and the company also retained rights to divert water from a nearby dam (that would affect fisheries on the Upper McCloud) and can take essentially unlimited groundwater. 

It's a horrific deal for the town, and it was one that was decided without any public review whatsoever. I could support a realistic contract with Nestle (assuming fisheries weren't harmed), but this deal is so bad that the handful of $10/hour jobs that would be returned to the community (studies suggest the higher-level jobs don't go to locals) simply aren't worth it.


Save Our Springs
Angelina Cook
Angelina Cook
Apr 09, 2009 12:41 PM
Millions rely upon the pure mountain water that gushes through the springs and rivers of McCloud, the southern most Mount Shasta headwater source for the Sacramento River. Mount Shasta already has two major multinational corporations sucking undisclosed amounts of water from the mysterious volcanic aquifers of the region. In the face of increasing drought, wildfires, climate change and crop crises, neither Mount Shasta or California can afford another fossil fuel intensive operation, wasting our most precious resource.

It is time to take responsibility for our unsustainable energy, land and water use practices. Working together, we can rebuild thriving communities through green economic development that enhances, not threatens our environment. McCloud is a perfect place to develop as a rural model for sustainable revitalization. But not if Nestle moves in.

If the people of McCloud are to prevail over Nestle, the world's most famous and potentially dangerous corporate Goliath, we need YOUR help downstream stake holders! Please visit www.mccloudwatershedcouncil.org to contribute.