Nope, Nestle’s Is NOT The California Drought Devil

Nope, Nestle’s Is NOT The California Drought Devil

I keep seeing this meme popping up on social media, blaming the California drought on Nestle’s bottled water operations in the state.

That’s nonsense, and I plead with readers who are tempted to re-post it, to pause and reconsider. And maybe send this one on instead.

The anti-Nestle campaign’s exploitation the California drought is so bogus it would be laughable, if there weren’t more serious matters at stake.


The main source of “information” for this latest round of propaganda is a lengthy and excellent report by a paper called The Desert Sun, in southern California, from mid-March. It’s VERY good, and I recommend reading it all.

The Desert Sun’s article makes a few appropriate critical points about Nestle in California that deserve attention, including:

–Nestle is running one of its water-gathering operations across public land, with a permit that expired several years ago. This permit should definitely be reviewed and reconsidered.

— Under the permit, Nestle pays the U.S. Forest Service the grand total of $524 per year for the millions of gallons of water it collects there. Assuming the permit were to be renewed and updated, Nestle should pay LOTS more to the public for the water.

So Nestle has had a very sweet deal there, and precious little oversight, both of which should change.

The Desert Sun’s headline for its excellent, stereotype-busting article.

 But that’s about where the bad news stops.

Here’s some more information that can be gleaned from the article, which puts Nestle and bottled water in California generally in a very different light:

–First, there are more than 100 bottled water plants in California. Nestle runs five of these. Last year, the company told the Desert Sun, it bottled about 705 million gallons in California. That was for the whole year, about 1.8 million gallons a day.

–One point eight million gallons may sound like a lot. But remember, this is California. And for comparison, the U.S. Geological Survey official numbers for 2010 (latest figures) calculated total California water usage at (wait for it) 38 BILLION gallons per DAY.

USGS image


Every DAY. 38 Billion gallons.

— Divide that by Nestle’s 1.8 million gallons and you get about .00005%; that is, Nestle is gobbling up about five hundred thousandths of one percent of California’s water.

–Another way to think about it: if Nestle disappeared, California water use would be 99.99995 the same.

In a more down-to-earth comparison, the Desert Sun article calculates it in green: All of Nestle’s California bottled water for a year would be enough to keep exactly two of the state’s golf courses green. (California has more than 1100 golf courses; so even on the links, Nestle is hardly a player; it could only take care of .02 percent of them.)

two golf courses
Okay, two golf courses down, 1100+ left to go, just in California. But these two alone would slurp up all the water Nestle bottles in the state. Who is greening all the others? Not Nestle; not even the hypothetical two. Nestle’s water is for drinking. By people, not grass.


So here’s where I have a problem: Maybe the Nestle corporation is the sum of all evil. I don’t know that, and don’t much care. In any case it should surely pay more to the feds for its California water; and definitely there should be more oversight and better monitoring.

Yet no matter how evil the Nestle corporation may be, it has, in truth, almost nothing to do with California’s drought. Didn’t cause it, and if it were closed down tomorrow, ending its water use wouldn’t cure it. Wouldn’t even make a blip on a blip on the state’s water usage meter.

So this repetitive trashing of Nestle as somehow the villain of the California drought is an opportunistic waste of time and energy. I gather there are anti-corporate and anti-plastic organizing campaigns out there, the interests of which are served by jumping on the parched California bandwagon.

But doing so is a complete distraction from the actual problems and potential real solutions to the state’s water crisis.

What are these “real problems and solutions?
Well, on the cause side, the USGS points out that The Number One California water user, way out front of everything (and everybody) else, is agriculture, specifically irrigation, which takes well over 70 percent of all water used in California.

Adapted from USGS figures.

 Many readers may have seen the news that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond.


{Did I mention that I like almonds? Or that despite this, I’m aware that almonds are produced by capitalist profit-making companies?]

More important, though, almond production alone consumes ten percent of all California water consumption. (That’s about 50,000 times as much as all the water Nestle uses, just for that one nut crop; let’s get real here.)

Cheeseburger as source of California drought.
The REAL Culprit in the California Drought?? But they’re so cute. And juicy.

 The other “culprit” in this agricultural water-guzzling is our old friend the cheeseburger. Truly unimaginable amounts of water are used in raising the crops that are fed to dairy and beef cattle; an estimate from 2006 was that a single cheeseburger represents about 1300 gallons of water consumption. (And I’ve seen higher estimates.)

At that rate, all of Nestle’s yearly California water total would equal about half a million burgers. So let’s do a little more quick math:

California had more than 27000 burger joints in 2008, and on average Americans are estimated to eat about three burgers apiece per week.

With 37 million Californians, that comes out to about half a million burgers — or a year’s worth of Nestle’s water– every forty-five minutes or so of every single day. Give or take a few thousand double whoppers.

Does the scale of this Nestle silliness begin to come into focus?

Fixing the truly crazy, self-destructive patterns of overall water use in the California drought will require huge upheavals in patterns of growth and usage in the state’s largest industry, with national and international, ramifications. We’re talking political and economic earthquakes here.

(Which is maybe why Governor Jerry Brown hasn’t really taken on the state’s politically heavyweight agricultural interests in his “radical” water savings plans. Not that I blame him. Any loudmouth can kick Nestle around. But which of you is really ready to step in the ring with the California behemoth that’s 50,000 times bigger? Raise your hands: who’s up for taking on Big Almonds???)

I hope two things are becoming clear from these various numbers:

Bashing bottled water won’t fix California’s drought problem. Getting rid of the whole industry would make no real measurable difference.

Face it, folks.

So go ahead and hate on Nestle if you want to; but please — spare us the baloney about how trashing them will do anything for California. Because it won’t.

In fact, I predict that getting rid of Nestle (and the other 96 percent of the state’s bottled water industry) would make coping with the drought harder in lots of ways.

BW-by-the-acre: California's future?
Bottled water by the acre. Is this a scene from California’s near future? It’s already happened here and there. Why? Simple: without safe drinking water, people die. That;’s a non-negotiable.

 That’s because bottled water is one of the first things that is needed in humanitarian emergencies. If you doubt this, google photos from almost any big natural disaster around the world: before long you’ll see photos of bottled water being brought in for emergency survival relief.

And it doesn’t take a prophet to predict increasing numbers of local water emergencies in and around the California drought region. Dependence on bottled water for drinking has already come, at least temporarily, to a few towns in rural, super-dry California hamlets. If the drought continues as forecast, there will be more of them.

And if Nestle and other bottlers are run out of the state, that will mean paying more for water trucked longer distances.

I’ve tried elsewhere to point out that, when it comes to real water issues, it is sheer foolishness to demonize bottled water in general and Nestle in particular; this goes double or more when it comes to the western drought.

Bottled Water as the Anti-christ
Is bottled water REALLY the antichrist??

 Yet when these unanswerable numbers come out, it’s usual to hear in response, derailing cries like:

— “But it’s the plastic bottles!” (Um, no it’s not. It’s about the water.)

Or: “Nestle’s is an evil international capitalist corporation!” (Which has almost nothing to do with the drought.)

Or “We have a human right to water and Nestle wants to take it all away.” (Really? All the five hundred thousandths of one percent of California water that it “owns”? That would only leave the state haggling over who has “rights” to the 99.99995% of what’s left.)

Or, not so rarely, “You must be a bottled water corporate stooge and front man.”

These are interesting discussions, but they have nothing to do with the case. We’re talking here about water, in California.

So go ahead, hate plastic bottles all you want; but they’re not the reason for the drought, and banning them won’t refill the reservoirs, or drape the Sierras in snowpack.

Nestle’s is surely capitalist, so despise capitalism if that’s your thing. Nestle’s operations in California do need better monitoring, and should pay more for water from federal land. But running the company out of the state of California won’t cure the drought, not even a little bit. (And guess what: if Nestle closed its five plants, the companies running the other hundred or so bottled water operations would be very happy to fill the gap and pocket the profits, thank you very much.)

Oh, and for the record, I don’t work for Nestle or any other bottled water company. Never have. (Though I also have to say, as shocking as this might sound, there would be nothing dishonorable about selling bottled water if I were to decide to do it. In fact few products can match it, ounce for ounce, for more health benefits and fewer downsides. But I’m not planning to do that. I’m retired.)

Anyway, when I buy bottled water, no one recognizes me and I pay the same price as everybody else. I’m writing this because the water crisis, in California and elsewhere, is too important for attention to it to be derailed into meaningless and irrelevant posturing.

And that’s what making Nestle and bottled water the drought devils amounts to. It’s not a serious response.

You want to make a real difference in the drought? Simple:

Put down that burger. (Yes, soy burgers too; they’re not much better.)

And then let’s talk about taking on Big Almonds.


4 thoughts on “Nope, Nestle’s Is NOT The California Drought Devil”

  1. Fascinated by your use of figures to explain the relative use of water by these different industries. Seems that at present most want to listen to easy answers to complex problems. UKIP in the UK for one. Changing climates and how we adapt will be crucial to a sustainable future even if there’s denial. I only know about the drought in California from blogging and my Quaker husband only found out when I gave him the blog to read! However he did know your name! Here in the UK we have no idea of your struggle but hope the demonising and hype gives way to changing lifestyles. Would a one cheeseburger a week Californian be a possibility?

  2. Whilst I can’t deny having a ready supply of bottled water for emergencies is a good thing – there is one flaw in your logic. That is – increasingly the rise of extreme climate events is on the rise due to climate change (look at the widely published work Charles Keeling ). The more fracking, fossil fuel dependency and eventually – large scale water harvesting that is (without doubt) coming that we undertake – the more disasters we’ll have. If we had less disasters – we’d need a few million less bottles of water at the ready. Not only that – bottled water lasts a few days – then more sustainable supplies need to be found and/or restored. Nestle are not the only ones harvesting water – no. But, their chairman made a crass and egregious remark that had to be (quite rightly) retracted. That’s put their brand in the firing line for consumer mistrust. Whilst I try and take a balanced view of ‘corporates v.s consumers’ you do need to be careful in wholesale endorsing the work of corporations increasingly uber-merging and ‘cornering’ markets in vital commodities. Just look at what happened when the fiscal markets were deregulated and how the western world’s economies fell into massive slump after Wall St’s racketeering.

    1. There’s no “wholesale endorsing the work of corporations” in my writing about bottled water. I stand by my documented observations that bottled water is an infinitesimally small part of the use and misuse of water resources. In the U.S., by far the largest part of water consumption — much more than used by all other industries — is for growing crops to feed meat animals. The villain in U. S. water use is not Nestle (whatever its other crimes) but the cheeseburger. Given that most cheeseburgers are produced by big corporations, this evidence-based observation is hardly a blank check for them. Beware simplistic groupthink propaganda.

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