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Calif. Bottled Water Plants Are Scrutinized During Severe Drought


California's epic drought is prompting people to look more closely at things they once took for granted, like, for example, the bottled water you get in restaurants and stores, some of which comes from California. Bottling plants draw water out of the ground in a state where increasing water restrictions are in effect. This proved to be a little too awkward for Starbucks, which says it will stop tapping California natural springs for its Ethos brand water. Nestle uses California water for its Arrowhead brand, and that drew the attention of Ian James, a reporter with The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs.

IAN JAMES: Nestle has 11 spring sources that it uses in California as well as five bottling plants. And the water that's bottled comes both from springs as well as from other supplies pumped directly from groundwater or from municipal supplies. And this is actually one of about 110 bottling plants in the state of various sizes and different companies.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea of all the groundwater that's taken out in California, how much of it is going into bottles for sale in California or outside the state?

JAMES: No, there isn't really good information on that on a statewide level. And that's one of the things that we found in our investigation into the bottled water industry is that no state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by bottled water plants in California. We do know that it's a relatively small amount of water. The government has estimated that about 1 percent of California's total water use goes to industrial water uses and that bottled water is a very small part of that.

INSKEEP: But what made it seem worth investigating?

JAMES: I think the concerns that have been raised by critics recently have to do with, what are the local impacts of drawing this water away from springs? And it's really a question that hasn't been studied by the state, and that is something that they say they want to do now.

INSKEEP: How much has the water table gone down where you are?

JAMES: There have been long-term declines in groundwater. This area also imports water from the Colorado River, so that has allowed the water agencies in this area to counteract those declines. But it's still a long-term issue that this area is trying to get a handle on.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking not only about the water that ends up in the bottles when you make Arrowhead water, but isn't there a certain amount of water that's used in manufacturing anything like that?

JAMES: The bottled water industry says that about 1.3 liters of water is used for every liter of bottled water produced. That's quite a bit more efficient than other drinks, like soda or beer. So as to efficiency, that's one of the points that the industry raises to say that, you know, this is an efficient use of water.

INSKEEP: Although, if I might, it's still a less efficient use of water to put water in a bottle and use some water in the manufacturing process than it would be just to turn on the faucet, right?

JAMES: Yeah, certainly. And I think that, you know, the drought has really intensified a debate here in California about bottled water and to what extent people ought to be doing it.

INSKEEP: Well, as you've been looking into Nestle's water use at this Arrowhead plant and elsewhere, how is Nestle responding to the questions?

JAMES: Well, Nestle says that they are carefully managing their spring sites to make sure that they're using water sustainably and are not having harmful environmental effects.

INSKEEP: Although you're saying the actual trend, so far as you know, is that Nestle is using more and more water, not less and less.

JAMES: For the bottled water operations, that's correct. And they've said that's because they've been meeting increasing demand. There is increasing demand for bottled water.

INSKEEP: Ian James, thanks very much.

JAMES: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: He's with The Desert Sun newspaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.