The Public Eye

Critics take aim at Nestlé bottled water plant in Sacramento

A worker at one of the production lines at a Nestle Waters plant in Florida.
A worker at one of the production lines at a Nestle Waters plant in Florida. MCT, 2009

As Californians face deepening cuts in water usage because of the drought, critics are raising concerns about tens of millions of gallons of Sacramento municipal water being tapped by a local plant that bottles and resells it at a profit.

Nestlé Waters North America has operated a bottling business in southeastern Sacramento since 2010. The company buys water from the city of Sacramento to produce and fill bottles of its Pure Life Purified Drinking Water.

Nestlé also churns out bottles of its Arrowhead Mountain Spring product at the plant, using water that is delivered from springs in Placer, El Dorado, Tuolumne and Napa counties.

Members of a coalition called Crunch Nestlé have organized protests outside the plant on Younger Creek Drive, most recently last month.

“We’re in a drought, and we find it extremely egregious for a company to be bottling water and being charged a pittance for it and selling it back to the public at 1,000 percent profit,” Crunch Nestlé organizer Bob Saunders said in an interview.

Nestlé says that in 2014, the company bought about 50 million gallons from Sacramento, including water that is used in plant operations as well as sold in bottles. The total amount is less than two-thousandths of 1 percent of the city’s total annual water usage, company spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said.

Nestlé does not receive a discount or special rate for water that it buys from Sacramento, Nestle officials said. The company pays about $1 per 100 cubic feet of water, the same as any metered business or manufacturer, officials said.

Nestlé’s figures “are in line with the water usage data collected by the city,” Sacramento spokeswoman Rhea Serran said in an email.

Using water to create and sell a product for hydration is no different from using water to manufacture any consumer goods, including soft drinks, food, clothes and furniture, Lazgin said. The difference, she said, is that creating bottled water requires much less water in the production process than many other goods.

“Part of our management of water is being as efficient as possible in plant operations,” Lazgin said. “We pretty much bottle every bit of water that we touch.”

The Sacramento bottling operation, which employs 56 to 60 workers throughout the year, uses about 1.3 gallons of water for every gallon produced for sale, plant manager Shawn Edmondson said.

The plant has taken steps to use less water in the manufacturing process, he said – including switching from a water-based lubricant to a dry lubricant to keep bottles standing on conveyer belts and using a reverse-osmosis system that extracts about 50 percent of the water from effluent produced in the filtering process.

According to Nestlé, about 80 percent of the products that it bottles in California stays in California. According to a fact sheet from the company, the operating profit for the global bottled-water business is about 10 percent before interest and taxes.

But allowing a private company to buy public water in drought-afflicted California to bottle and resell anywhere at a profit “doesn’t make any sense, because water is such a needed commodity” in the state, Saunders said.

He added that members of Crunch Nestlé also are concerned about the use of large amounts of water in hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – which injects fluid into underground rock to release natural gas and oil. Activists are planning a demonstration in Sacramento in June to call for a statewide moratorium on bottling water and fracking.

“It’s ridiculous to allow that kind of thing to go on during a drought,” he said. “We need to relook at our usage of water and rethink how we do things in a new way, because our old system isn’t working.”

Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.

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