One of the great books of the 20th century, according to others, was Marc Reiser’s “Cadillac Desert.” Its theme is that the history of the American West is the saga of its water. Similarly, international policy wonks have long predicted that clean water will be the petroleum of the 21st century: so scarce that wars will be fought over it.
If so, there’s a skirmish afoot in the far-north California hamlet of Weed, over access to its pristine local spring water supply.
The essential facts are these: Roseburg Forest Products company, the successor to International Paper (IP) as a primary local employer, wants to cease supplying water to the town. Instead, they want to sell the natural flow from the Beaughan Spring on their property to Crystal Geyser water company … for export to Japan … during a five-year drought. The Crystal Geyser parent company's CEO has repeatedly threatened to “blow up” his existing Weed bottling plant unless the locals knuckle-under.
Of course, it gets more complicated from there. In the 1950s, IP wanted to develop a plot it owned as a subdivision of the town. Access to water was required, so the company formed a tiny utility for the purpose, and leased 2 cubic feet/sec from its Beaughan Spring, at one $1/year, for fifty years. The utility was later folded into the Town, and IP left for greener forests, selling-out to Roseburg, which makes plywood from local pines.
Fifty years feels like an eternity when you’re contemplating a contract, but it has now expired. The world has changed dramatically, and the current parties each have very different frames of reference. Weed sees the spring water supply as a natural local bounty, essential to the survival of its citizens (as do they); Roseburg sees an under-performing asset; Crystal Geyser sees a thirsty Japanese market eager to pay for the local effluent to be bottled, palleted, trucked, shipped across the ocean and distributed around those relatively soggy islands. I should add here that I have always considered the notion of selling bottled water to be laughable – shows what I know about marketing, but I digress.
Each player has its points – and each has done its part to make matters worse.
The townsfolk are correct that this is a precious local resource that’s woven into the fabric and the plumbing of their community, that they’ve had benefit of it forever, and alternatives are getting scarce. Sure it’s owned by somebody else, but that company (then IP) profited from the dollar lease that facilitated its real estate development project, the townsfolk/employees have made it and Roseburg a lot more money through their toil, and the flow costs the company little-or-nothing.
On the other hand, the lease terms are clear, and the town has failed to consider and plan for its eventual termination. A replacement well is estimated to cost $2 million, in a town over fewer than 3,000 souls.
Roseburg is not a public service outfit; it’s a profit-seeking company that bought the spring from IP with everything else, and succeeded to the terms of the lease. 2cu ft/sec may not sound like much water, but it rolls up to almost 500 million gallons/year if my math is right, which it’s frequently not. That’s enough to fill 757 Olympic pools, or 74 reflecting ponds on the national Capitol mall. Further, they’ve offered a site on their property for the town to drill a well.
That said, the site they’ve offered is adjacent to an area that’s been abandoned by the company. It is so polluted that it’s been designated a Superfund site; whether the accumulated toxics have reached any future water well’s depth could not be known until after it’s been dug. Although sucking out groundwater and cleaning it before returning it to the environment is a common clean-up strategy, it’s considered best if humans aren’t engaged as the cleansing mechanism. Just ask Flint.
Crystal Geyser sees the potential profit in a supply of pure mountain spring water equivalent to 8 Exxon Valdez tankers/year, also subject to the math. They already have a local bottling operation that presumably employs locals -- and who’s to say that thirsty palettes of paying buyers 5000 miles distant are less deserving of these life-sustaining molecules than the townsfolk?
On the other hand, the reported, repeated tirade of the company CEO screams of greed and bullying. That alone would be enough to make me turn to alternative sources of this unnecessarily packaged product. Further, when the CEO’s son visited in an attempt to smooth the, um, waters, he indicated that this was just a routine business transaction, and that his firm is blameless as simply one customer.
That, of course, is nonsense. I do know enough to realize that business depends on the goodwill of its stakeholders to survive and thrive. By choosing This battle for sourcing in This context of both drought and a small, powerless town of many innocent souls, they have shown themselves tone-deaf to that reality. They are complicit in this controversy as the outside source of demand, to the point where it doesn’t really matter whether others have contributed to the problem.
They will be painted as the villain as much as Roseburg, and much more than the town. Readers may recall a prior incident of corporate arrogance in the ‘privatization’ of the water supply in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city. The locals had mismanaged and failed to plan, but ensuing steep rate hikes prompted sabotage and riots in which people died. The corporations involved, including an affiliate of Bechtel, lost a lot of money as the government eventually returned the water to public hands. The enduring image is of fat cats turning-off the tap to poor peasants.
I have a Facebook friend from junior high who routinely regales us with his trout-fishing exploits in the beautiful, plentiful byways of Montana’s watershed. That water certainly looks good enough drink right out of the river (giardia be damned) – the locals might not even mind. Crystal Geyser might also check-out the Columbia, which runs at 130,000 times the rate of Beaughan Spring. There ARE alternatives.
For now this local water war continues at impasse, and nobody has died, yet. But the New York Times ran with the story today, and dismal lapses of judgment, all around but especially on the part of Crystal Geyser, will endure and spread. I’ll wager the public black eye will cost Crystal Geyser more than they’d make on the Weed water. It would be enough to prompt me to boycott their company (I haven’t bought Exxon gas at-retail since the Valdez).
It almost makes me wish I used their product, just so I could stop.