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Sacramento residents are taking first steps into the water justice movement in an effort to stop Swiss company Nestle from bottling and selling city tap water.
About 60 people and one dog packed a tiny Quaker church in a Midtown office suite Monday night to discuss growing concerns over Nestle's plans to open a water-bottling plant in Sacramento and to bottle an estimated 82 million gallons of water from the American River every year.
One of the group's biggest worries is that Nestle's use of the water would not be regulated or limited in any way. While city employee and Nestle's public relations team estimates are tens of millions of gallons apart, the actual amount of water Nestle may bottle each year would be unchecked, according to city staff and activists.
"It's clearly ridiculous to give someone unlimited access to our water in the third year of a drought," said Sacramento resident Evan Tucker. "We could stop it."
The water would be taken directly from the municipal water system. The bottled water would then be trucked to stores and sold to consumers, including those in Sacramento and elsewhere in Northern California.
The group also expressed concerns with the lack of transparency they say has accompanied plans for Nestle's bottled water division, known as Nestle Water, to begin operations at a Florin Fruitridge Industrial Park site early next year. The city has not sought public input or performed an environmental analysis of the plan's expected impact.
"The city and Nestle have tried to keep this a secret," said Tucker, who led the meeting. "We're trying to do what we can to get the word out."
The group, which has organized under the name Save Our Water Sacramento, includes people who have worked for social justice, human and civil rights and the environment. Monday night, they discussed the initial steps they're taking to seek a Sacramento City Council moratorium on beverage bottling plants in Sacramento.
Save Our Water Sacramento and its allies are also working to bring the new movie, "Tapped," to the city, Mt. Shasta and Orland, where another water-bottling fight is raging, in the next few weeks, said Nancy Price of Davis, who has helped community residents fight bottled-water battles in other states as a social and environmental justice issue. Price works with Alliance for Democracy's Water for Life campaign.
Nestle is planning to open a plant in Sacramento after a failed, six-year battle to bottle spring water in McCloud near Mt. Shasta. Nestle had sought to open a plant a few miles from water-bottling plants operated by Coca-Cola and Crystal Geyser, owned by a Japanese pharmaceutical company. That effort failed after Attorney General Jerry Brown threatened to sue Nestle over an inadequate environmental review in the summer of 2008.
Nestle's attempts to build water-bottling plants have been fought from McCloud to Denver and Maine. Residents of Shingletown, a mountain community outside Lassen National Park, are currently fighting a water battle involving an unidentified bottling company they suspect is Nestle, said Dick Rullman, president of Local Water Stays Local.
They've hired San Francisco attorney Rachel Hooper of Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger — the same attorney who successfully fought Nestle in McCloud.
Nestle's stated plans for Sacramento include bottling 20 million gallons of spring water from an unidentified source, Tucker said.
As such an old city, Sacramento has "very, very senior water rights" in California, said Carmichael resident Betsy Weiland, who has worked on other water issues such as protecting the American River.
When asked whether city employees have given Nestle permission to bottle and sell the city's water, Tom Zeidner, a senior development project manager with the Economic Development Department, said, "Nestle's is setting up its plant in an existing building in an area that's zoned industrial or manufacturing. They have satisfied zoning standards. As such, they are going in there and establishing a plant under 'development by right.' "
The area is zoned for industrial use of water, he later added.
The permits they need to install equipment and do work on an existing building are "minor enough" that Nestle doesn't need to go through any other regulatory body, such as the planning commission, Zeidner said.
Nestle has told the city about 250 acre feet — or nearly 82 million gallons — of city-treated American River water would be bottled each year. That represents .02 percent of the city's current water demands, he said, adding the city does not regulate how much water an industrial water customer uses except to impose drought restrictions when needed.
There are no current drought restrictions on industrial users, although there are outdoor irrigation restrictions, he added.
Nestle would pay the industrial rate, said Zeidner, who didn't know what that rate is.
The city determined that the California Environmental Quality act doesn't apply to the project, he said, based on CEQA guidelines, section 15002i, which state:
(i) Discretionary Action. CEQA applies in situations where a governmental agency can use its judgment in deciding whether and how to carry out or approve a project. A project subject to such judgmental controls is called a "discretionary project."
(1) Where the law requires a governmental agency to act on a project in a set way without allowing the agency to use its own judgment, the project is called "ministerial," and CEQA does not apply.
(2) Whether an agency has discretionary or ministerial controls over a project depends on the authority granted by the law providing the controls over the activity. Similar projects may be subject to discretionary controls in one city or county and only ministerial controls in another.
Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.