Nestlé and California Groundwater (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles published concerning greenwashing, both historically and at present. This week’s article examines water as a human right. The second article can be seen here.


Groundwater extraction in California remains a hotly contested topic. The main source of this furor is the pumping of groundwater by Nestlé Waters, the bottled water branch of the Nestlé Group, commonly just known as Nestlé. The Swiss food and drink conglomerate extracts millions of gallons of groundwater in California, drying up the state’s precious aquifers. As surface water dried up, farmers, individuals and municipalities resorted to pumping groundwater, which in the past had been the state’s literal water bank. A problem soon erupted because of the groundwater pumping. The state’s “insatiable thirst for groundwater,” as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) notes, has exemplified the severity of the droughts and lack of other water sources, with geographical studies showing that California is getting drier.  Although then-Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed a landmark groundwater bill in September 2014 aimed at regulating groundwater management in the Golden State, making California the last state in the West to regulate the practice, Nestlé is still pumping groundwater at levels environmentalists, and many locals, argue is unsustainable. And, while this water crisis is certainly not alone, tension is boiling in California, and does not show any sign of cooling down any time soon.

Preservationists vs. Conservationists

While the controversy that Nestlé is embroiled in with California regulators dominates public debate, California’s water wars were not borne out of the Swiss conglomerate, but rather over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early twentieth century. After the 1906 earthquake and fire razed much of San Francisco and buried the city under rubble, the supposedly state-of-the-art municipal firefighting system fell short. As the San Andreas Fault unleashed a 7.9 magnitude seismic quake on unsuspecting San Franciscans, much of the city’s waterlines were severed, leaving many fire hydrants useless. The consequence was $350,000,000 dollars of property damage (approx. $10,025,438,888.89 in inflation adjusted to 2020 $USD), an estimated 3,000 people killed and 50% of the city’s 400,000 residents left homeless. The devastating fire exposed deep problems in San Francisco’s water system and the need for a reliable source of water for the City and County of San Francisco. Water access came to the forefront in the public’s mind.

An alternative turned out to be Hetch Hetchy Valley. Located in the northwestern part of modern-day Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy’s natural beauty rivaled that of Yosemite Valley. The proposal advanced by conservationists was to dam it to collect and re-route water to San Francisco and the Peninsula. The battle-lines were quickly drawn between two camps: the preservationists and conservationists. The preservationists, led by John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, contended that the valley’s preservation for posterity outweighed society’s utilitarian needs. Conversely, the conservationists, such as officials from San Francisco and Gifford Pinchot—who was the first head of the United States Forest Service—asserted that the environment should be used in a conscientious manner to benefit society. Ultimately, the conservationists won out, much to the devastation of Muir, who died a year later. Specifically, the Raker Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on December 19, 1913. The law granted “the city of San Francisco the right to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a reservoir, and the unfulfilled right of municipalized electricity for the city.” As a result, the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed on May 24, 1923, establishing the Hetch Hetchy Valley reservoir. And thus California’s endless search for water began.

The California State Water Project Down to Present Day

Following the Hetch Hetchy Valley reservoir’s completion, water and access to water consumed California politics into the twentieth century. Arguably the most prominent champion of water reform in the Golden State in the mid-twentieth century was Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, whose signature implementation of the California State Water Project (SWP) in 1960 helped transport water from wetter northern California to the drier south. The SWP helped partly quench the thirst of California agricultural producers in the Central Valley, though a warming climate would make even the impressive technological feat of the California State Water Project (SWP) insufficient to fully satisfy California’s insatiable need for water in the decades to come.

As droughts became the new norm in California and surface water diminished or evaporated altogether, many Californians—especially farmers in the Central Valley—resorted to pumping groundwater from the labyrinthine aquifers that meander under the state. While in normal times seasonal pumping of groundwater allows time for the refilling of those aquifers, during droughts groundwater is pumped faster than aquifers can replenish themselves. A practical consequence of this phenomenon is that pumps run dry; a geological consequence is land subsistence, the subsiding (i.e., sinking) of the ground directly above the aquifer as a result of depleted water supply and lack of water recharge. In 1977 a measuring pole was used to show how far some California land sank between 1925 and 1977: a whopping nine meters – approximately 30 feet. While that is bad enough, subsidence also reduces the ability of the earth itself, composed largely of clay, to store water. Put plainly, the more California sinks, the less groundwater it can hold for posterity.  While the state’s subsidence monitoring mechanisms were reduced in the 1980s, new ones continue to be developed, including a refurbishment of the extensometers and piezometers from the old network, and augmenting ground-based measuring tools with remotely-sensed tools. From the preliminary geographical examinations, not only is subsistence continuing to occur in known locations, but it is also cropping up in new places, such as in Madera, California.

Although the Golden State keeps getting drier, demand for its precious groundwater keeps getting higher, especially as, in a market-driven economy food and drink corporations continue to aggressively market water. This market-driven action, though, brings with it environmental consequences. Though some companies, such as Starbucks, have terminated water pumping activities for their bottled water brands due to the worsening drought, other corporations continue to pump out groundwater to this day. The corporation that continues to garner the most notoriety in the court of California public opinion is Nestlé, which continues to pump groundwater in the state for its Arrowhead brand.

With surface water levels unpredictable at best amid a changing climate, and subsistence reducing the capacity of the state’s aquifers to regenerate, California’s water wars continue to polarize. In places where there still is at least some constant supply of fresh water, such as creeks and streams, the debate has become even more pronounced. It is in this historical and scientific context that Nestlé’s controversy comes to the fore and ultimately baits the question: Should water be commodified, or is it a human right?


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Aug. 18, 2020.


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