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The next California water war

Throughout California a punishing drought has forced hard cuts to community water use. So why is a private bottling company allowed to start pumping more?

MOUNT SHASTA, California — Throughout parched California, a punishing drought has forced communities to cut back on their water use. Just outside the town of Mount Shasta, however, a private bottling company is about to do the opposite, opening a tap on millions of gallons of the state’s dwindling public resource.

The pumping is set to start later this summer, when Crystal Geyser -- a subsidiary of Otsuka Holdings, a massive Japanese health care conglomerate -- will drop its straw into a famous spring here, sucking in and selling the run-off from ancient glaciers. Some of it will be shipped overseas, while the rest will be sold in-state, according to the company. 

No matter where it's sold, many residents of Mount Shasta are angry and confused by the move. They fear dry wells and an overdrawn aquifer. Some also believe that the mountain spring should be shared by all, not sold off for individual gain. They've decided to fight, hiring a lawyer and pledging to picket the plant when it opens.

“What we have to offer up here is the water,” said Raven Stevens, who is working to protect the water for the neighborhood adjacent to the new plant. “It’s the blood. It’s the blood of the planet.”

"It's quite selfish," added Amanda Thomas, who often visited the spring when she was a girl, and hopes to protect it for her son. "The whole state of California uses this water. So it's not just water for me. It's everyone."  

For the moment, the cold, clean glacier-melt of Big Springs flows into the wells and jugs of locals, and feeds the pipes and faucets of millions of thirsty state residents. It pools in a shrine-like park in the city of Mount Shasta, beneath a dome of blue sky at the roof of the state, a short hike from the base of the 14,179-foot peak.

Like the cap on a bottle, Mount Shasta protects a gigantic underground aquifer, which recharges as rain and snow filter through an unseen warren of fractured rock and lava tubes. It surfaces here first, luring thousands of visitors a year, from urban tourists who praise the flavor, to backwoods naturalists who whisper about the curative power it possesses.

The water flows south, joining other springs and burbling into the Sacramento River, the primary source of drinking water for much of the state. It floats the boats on Shasta Lake and ends up in the Central Valley Project, a huge federal reservoir system that supports the California way of life.

Mount Shasta's water helped turn an arid state into oasis for fish, farmers and dream-seekers from all over the world. But while the drought has forced all three of those customers to cope with less water, Crystal Geyser faces no such restrictions. There’s also no legal cap on how much the company can pump, and no requirement for a new environmental review before it starts.

Perhaps the most controversial detail is the price that Crystal Geyser will pay for extracting this cherished public resource: zero dollars and zero cents. That's mystifying to the local population. 

“They say jobs. They say money. And I would say, as a community member, you can’t put a price on the value of this right here,” said Jonathan Hoefs, holding up a jug of free water from the spring. “It’s valuable as a natural resource. It’s valuable as a community center. It’s valuable in the long term.”

Crystal Geyser has already announced plans to expand their new facility, closing two nearby bottling plants and consolidating operations in Mount Shasta. It’s easy to understand why. Bottling companies have long prized California, because the state’s groundwater laws have historically made water the unregulated property of whoever has the straw.

But even by those lax standards, the Crystal Geyser deal has extraordinary elements. The state’s Groundwater Sustainability Management Act won’t apply, for example, and neither will state laws on diverting streams. That’s because geologists consider the aquifer to be a type of freestanding water, not a protected “primary basin” and not a flowing water source.

There’s no need for an environmental review, meanwhile, because Crystal Geyser is operating on the site of an old Coca-Cola bottling plant. Coca-Cola’s environmental review is more than a decade old, and it predates some of the hottest, driest years on record. But Crystal Geyser is allowed to piggy back on the same paperwork, accountable to no one but their shareholders, critics argue. 

"The State of California has a limited role in regulating the bottled water industry, similar to its limited oversight of other beverage manufacturing," Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for California's Department of Water Resources, wrote in an email to msnbc. "To date, California hasn’t singled out the bottled water industry for special data collection or regulation."

“We have to follow the law,” Mount Shasta city councilman Jeffrey Collins added. “We might not like the law, but we have to follow it.”

By his estimation, most people in town would like to put a “hard cap” on the amount of water Crystal Geyser can pump. They'd also like the company to post a detailed contingency plan -- a to-do list in the event of damage to the aquifer -- and prove publicly that it's operations are sustainable. 

Collins doesn't disagree with these demands. At the same time, he said, he trusts the company. Besides, this depressed lumber town needs the jobs, and Crystal Geyser is promising about 90 of them. 

The company's executives declined to be interviewed, but they've hired one of the world's leading public relations firms to handle questions from the media. Burson Marsteller is a veteran of the "water wars" of the early aughts, when Nestle and the people of Poland, Maine, slugged it out over a local spring. The firm also represented Nestle in its ultimately losing battle to open a larger bottling plant in the same county as Mount Shasta. 

In the current case, a Crystal Geyser representative said the company would have a “negligible” effect on the local environment, using an estimated 1% of the average daily flow of the spring. While it declined to accept a "hard cap," the company said it planned to use no more than 3% of the spring during peak periods, and only if a second line is added in the future. It also said 99 out of 100 bottles would stay in California.

But with no legal limit on how much the company can pump, the community is still worried. For many, the new bottling plant is more than a local drought story, or a case of a few rural wells in peril. Activists see it as part of a growing global fight for one of the world's most important resources. The United Nations, which considers access to fresh water to be a human right, expects demand to outstrip supply as soon as 2025.

"This is a particularly egregious example of a company taking a public resource and turning it into a private profit stream," said Emily Wurth of Food & Water Water, which has called for a ban on bottling water amid the drought.  

Back in Mount Shasta, the Crystal Geyser plant is a stepped-on ant hill of activity as workers rush to prepare for a September opening. But the local water advocates are busy, too, monitoring local wells and preparing to confront the company if the water table seems to fall.  

“I don’t have much quit in me,” said Raven Stevens, the community advocate. “Some people keep their head down, take care of their own business, fix it, go on about their life, dig a deeper well, such is life. But you know, that's just not the way it should be.”