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Drought: Is the bottled industry shrinking California's water supply?

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California's drought has many communities looking hard at where their water comes from and where it goes. One concern is that some water goes into bottles, and those bottles go somewhere else for sale.

California has a lot of companies that bottle water, whether it’s purified water — sourced from a municipal system and filtered some more — or spring water, which comes out of the ground.   

Exactly how much water these companies are taking is hard to know, but the industry, environmental researchers, and water officials agree it's a very small part of the total water used across the state. 

How much...or how little?

"The entire U.S. bottled water market is about 10 billion gallons [per year], and Los Angeles goes through that amount of tap water in less than three weeks," says Chris Hogan, spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association.    

Jeff Davis, general manager of the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency, doesn’t have exact numbers, but guesses that of all the municipal and industrial/non-agricultural water used in the state of California, 1 to 2 percent is used for drinking.

"So when we’re talking bottled water, we’re talking about a really small, tiny percentage of the overall water used in California, even for municipal and industrial purposes," says Davis. 

Agriculture is California’s well-known water hog. The Oakland-based Pacific Institute says about 80 percent of the water used here goes into farming. Compared to that, bottled water is, drops in a very big bucket.  But Pacific Institute co-founder Peter Gleick says the key issue isn’t statewide, it’s local.

"Especially in the desert areas, where we do have some big bottled water plants that may have a local impact on streams, on local ecosystems on local groundwater," Gleick says. "I do think it’s a fair conversation to have."   

In Cabazon, frustration at bottled water plant spills over

That conversation has been tense at times in Cabazon, in Riverside County, where Arrowhead bottles water from a spring.  The spring is on land owned by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians.  As a sovereign nation, the Morongo Indians are not required to disclose how much of the water is going into bottles.  

The General Manager of the Cabazon Water District, Calvin Louie, also acknowledges that overall, bottled water is a small percentage of water use. "But here, I’m the guardian of the water resources in this community and I’m concerned about people 'pulling' or putting straws in our aquifer and pumping water," Louie says. "We need to be responsible."

The Arrowhead plant once used industrial water from the Cabazon Water District for maintenance and cleaning, but four years ago, the company and the district couldn’t agree on a new contract, so the District shut off its industrial water supply. Louie points out that during this drought period, Cabazon’s aquifer is declining about a foot a year.

"There’s going to be a day when we have to import water," says Louie. 

If that day comes, the water will come from the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency, water wholesaler in the area for the California Water Project.  GM Davis says Arrowhead has secured the rights to the water in the spring, and even at this local level, it’s bottling a tiny amount of the overall supply.

"Local residents use more than that to water their lawns and it gets wasted because it falls on the street or the sidewalk and then runs into the gutter.  I mean, we lose more water that way than is bottled through Arrowhead every year,” Davis says.  

Still, Gleick, who authored "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water," remains concerned.

“If this plant were in Ohio, Michigan or the forested areas of the Pacific Northwest, the total amount of water withdrawn would not raise a lot of eyebrows, but it is a desert ecosystem," Gleick says. "It’s a place where water comes to the surface in a desert spring and that’s a rare thing in California and that’s one of the reasons why it’s an important part of the conversation.”  

So where does California bottled water go?

Tim Brown, President and CEO of Arrowhead and its owner Nestle Waters North America, says three quarters of the water it bottles in California stays in California, and he believes the numbers are similar for the rest of the bottled water industry. Why? Because 20 percent of the cost of a single-serve bottle of water goes toward transportation and logistics. 

"You can’t ship water very far and achieve good economics," Brown says.

That confirms Davis' suspicion. "My gut feel is that there’s a lot more bottled water coming into California than going out of California just because the demand for bottled water is so great in California," Davis says. 

Data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation says California led all states in bottled water consumption in 2011, with more than 2 million gallons. Texas was a distant second at 1.3 million. 

2011 U.S. Bottled Water Consumption

"Bottled water is the number one refreshment beverage in California today, and soon will pass carbonated soft drinks nationally," Brown says.

Is bottled water safer than tap? A question of who regulates

But sustainability advocates like Gleick argue that consumers are choosing bottled water as an alternative to tap water, not soft drinks. Gleick says the bottled water companies have marketed their product very aggressively at a time when consumers are increasingly fearful about the quality of their tap water.

"We don’t really understand how good we have it with tap water in the U.S," Gleick says, adding that readily available public water is increasingly hard to find.

"I can tell you where to find a bottle of commercially sold water sitting here in my office, but I couldn’t tell you where the nearest working water fountain is," Gleick says. 

Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, while bottled water falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration.  Tap water advocates say it meets higher standards than bottled water, while the bottled water industry maintains its product is closely monitored.  

The bottled water industry insists its products rise has been as an increasingly popular alternative to soft drinks, not tap water. 

2013 U.S. beverage consumption by volume

"The switching of lifestyle and behavior is there," Brown says. "We believe that tap water [consumption] is going up as well, so the idea that bottled water is stealing from tap water is a misnomer." 

Gary Hemphill, Managing Director of Research for the Beverage Marketing Corporation, says bottled water replaces both tap water and soft drinks.  Which one it replaces depends on the quantity being purchased.

"When consumers buy bulk sizes of water — one gallon jugs or larger — they're probably buying that as an alternative to their tap water because they don't think the quality of that or don't like the taste," says Hemphill. "When people buy bottled water in single serve sizes, like 20 ounce bottles, they're primarily buying that as a refreshment beverage."