Mount Shasta rises out of the northern Sacramento Valley, a snow-capped icon of serenity that attracts pilgrims seeking to heal body and soul in its fabled springs.
Today it is a place of conflict over its most vaunted asset: water.
Crystal Geyser plans to open an idled Coca-Cola bottling plant, pumping from an existing 200-foot well that draws on the snowmelt and springs percolating through a maze of underground lava tubes at the base of Mount Shasta. Operations could begin this fall.
Neighbors of the plant have spent two years asking for information about how much water will be pumped from the aquifer. They are also concerned about noise, vibrations and the effects of manufacturing plastic bottles on site.
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Siskiyou County supervisors must have been pleased with themselves when they negotiated a 2013 deal with the Calistoga-based corporation to reopen the bottling plant unused since 2010. It seemed to promise an environmentally friendly business in an area where the collapse of logging left an 8 percent unemployment rate.
What the supervisors didn’t bargain for was four years of drought. Even in this place of apparent plenty – a major contributor to Shasta Lake, which stores about 40 percent of the Central Valley Project’s supply – the local water supply is shrinking. Panther Meadow spring, where members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe trace their origins, ran dry recently for the first time in tribal memory. In Mount Shasta City, residents are being asked to reduce their water usage as output drops from Cold Springs, the municipal source.
In the face of dwindling local supplies, residents were stunned that the county’s deal with Crystal Geyser poses no caps on what the company can pump and export, some as bottled tea and flavored beverages. Many have vivid, painful memories of household pumps sucking gravel and wells going dry when the Coca-Cola plant was operating.
WATER (We Advocate Through Environmental Review), a citizens group, wants a full study of the new bottling plant under the California Environmental Quality Act. Despite significant changes from Coca-Cola’s operations, Siskiyou officials say they have no legal authority to require an environmental impact report, citing previously issued permits.
While they could opt to invoke CEQA, it’s no surprise that the Siskiyou supervisors are averse to utilizing state regulations. This is, after all, the county that launched a secessionist movement over the state’s “burdensome” and “irrelevant” rules.
Turning to the state, WATER members were equally stonewalled. The long overdue 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act does not recognize Mount Shasta as a groundwater basin. The local state assemblyman’s office told the beleaguered citizens to dig deeper wells. And in response to a petition bearing 50,000 signatures, the governor suggested hiring an attorney to address CEQA issues.
Late last month they did, filing a lawsuit that seeks an injunction pending an environmental review. “Nobody’s anti-job here,” said Raven Stevens, spokeswoman for Gateway Neighborhood Association. “We just want a scientific study to tell us what we need to know.”
The information could document an ample supply of water to support the bottling plant without affecting individual wells. It might even be enough to expand the plant, adding to the estimated 30 jobs Crystal Geyser now plans.
The Mount Shasta conflict exposes more than a renegade board of supervisors bent on snubbing state regulations. It exposes the state’s inadequate groundwater regulations, which fail to protect watershed areas and all but the most economically and politically powerful basins.
In this drought-prone era of dwindling water supplies and escalating demands, California needs a statewide policy that safeguards water for communities before for-profit corporations. And it needs it before faucets in households neighboring the Crystal Geyser plant spurt air and gravel.
Jane Braxton Little, a freelance writer, covers science, natural resources and rural Northern California from Plumas County.