Corporate giants slurp up a tiny town's pure water

  • California

    Diane Sylvain

OLANCHA, Calif. - Crystal Geyser's 100,000-square-foot bottling facility sticks out incongruously in this Owens Valley town of some 200 people.

In the late 1980s, the company spent two years tasting water from all over the West, searching for a spot to build a new bottling plant. Crystal Geyser, one of the nation's top sellers of bottled water, finally decided to locate their plant alongside the main highway in this high desert town.

"Olancha had the best-tasting water they could find," said a company spokesman.

Crystal Geyser is not the only company attracted to Olancha by the exceptionally pure and good-tasting water that courses down from the Sierra Nevada range and collects underground here.

Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch bought a ranch next door to where the Crystal Geyser plant now stands, because it hopes to export water to Southern California. And the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which already owned most of the land and water rights in the valley, has bought hundreds of acres of additional ranchland at Olancha.

"Olancha is the water capital of California," Inyo County Supervisor Paul Payne boasts.

But this water mecca is feeling the downside of its popularity. Crystal Geyser, town residents and county officials worry that new water extractions could seriously deplete the aquifer here, or ruin their wells with brackish water drawn from beneath the nearby dry Owens Lake bed.

Crystal Geyser and Anheuser-Busch are currently wrangling over the groundwater beneath their properties. In a letter to Inyo County supervisors, Crystal Geyser president Pete Gordon wrote that the company was "extremely concerned about the very large recent increase in groundwater pumping" by Anheuser-Busch. If the pumping causes an increase in salinity in their water, "then Crystal Geyser will not be able to continue its present water-bottling operation at this site," he added.

The company is so concerned about the Anheuser-Busch plans that it bought another ranch south of town, hoping to interest the brewing company in extracting groundwater from there instead, according to an Inyo County official.

This area's water is especially pure because it consists of Sierra snowmelt that doesn't travel far before collecting underground and rising to the surface, said Inyo County Water Department Director Greg James.

"There's nothing between the mountains and Owens Lake which would pollute the water," he said. "It comes off the granite and doesn't go through much alluvium, and it isn't in the ground that long."

James said that bottlers and water exporters are also attracted here because the water supply has proved to be reliable even during drought years, and because it is one of the few places in the valley where private land is still available. The town's proximity to major markets and shipping facilities in Southern California is another attraction for bottlers.

Locals have been wary of the large beverage companies and would-be water exporters coming to do business here.

"When you have a small community of 200 and you have (Los Angeles) Anheuser-Busch and Crystal Geyser on your hands, isn't that a little frightening?" asked Melinda Salmonds, longtime resident and chairwoman of the local community services district. "Everybody is on their own wells. People were scared to death that they could take so much water that we would have nothing."

There is one plan for Olancha's water that pleases locals. A Los Angeles entrepreneur named Rod Bone wants to locate a 20,000-square-foot brewery here, producing a million cases annually of "Bone Dry Beer."

County officials say it would provide jobs in the sparsely populated southern end of the county while using a relatively small amount of water.

But another water exporting scheme recently proposed by a town resident has raised ire here. The project, known as Rancho Olancha, would pump groundwater from a lot in a residential area of the town into tanker trucks for export. It has been fiercely opposed by neighbors and other locals, and has not been well received by county officials. Residents said it would deplete their wells and cause a major disturbance in the neighborhood without contributing a thing to the community.

Martin Forstenzer writes from Bishop, California.

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