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

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

    LUCAS MOBLEY PHOTOS
 

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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...