California, Drought, and Bottled Water

California DroughtCalifornia is running out of water. So is the entire American Southwest, for that matter, but the crisis in California is in particularly dire straits. A number of farms in the state are already out of water, and officials estimate drinking water will run out in many communities in the next 60 to 100 days. This is Grapes of Wrath territory, and forecasts say it will only go on, and likely worsen, over the coming years.

What’s shocking to me is that California lawmakers, who monitor and regulate water use very strictly, have no idea how many gallons are leaving its aquifers in the form of bottled water. At least, not as far as I can find.

As of 2008 there were more than 100 water bottling operations in California. The State’s Department of Health requires them to report how much they are removing from groundwater sources, but this information is not made available to the public or to lawmakers in the state. A proposed 2008 law would have changed this, but it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who cited a state budget crisis that would only allow him to approve bills of the “highest priority.” One has to wonder how anything could be higher priority than access to drinking water.

The causes of the Southeast water crisis are pretty clear: Diminished snowfall in the Sierras and Rocky Mountains and brutally hot summers, both results of climate change driven by global warming, have in turn deprived rivers and aquifers of their source and then sucked them dry from evaporation. A few studies have tied the problem to population growth, but this is dubious. Water-saving technology has improved efficiency so that levels of water consumption in most parts of the Southwest are near 1955 levels, when the population of the area was a small fraction of what it is today.

Except, of course, that those consumption figures include water bottling only when it comes from municipal supplies. Water that is drawn directly from the ground is not measured, at least not in aggregate. In 2012, experts estimated Americans were drinking about 9.1 billion gallons of bottled water each year, or about 30 gallons per person per year. This is roughly 30 times bottled water consumption in the 1970s. Consider also that the bottling process consumes about 3 gallons of water for each gallon bottled. That’s more than 27 billion gallons a year to supply Americans with bottled water.

How much of that is coming from drought-ridden California? The State’s Department of Health knows. Unfortunately, they’re not telling anyone.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Chris, I just happened across your blog and wanted to add a comment regarding your claim that bottled water has somehow impacted the ongoing drought facing Southern California.

    You might want to know that bottled water production from groundwater sources accounts for less than 0.02 percent of the total groundwater withdrawn in the United States each year. And, despite the bottled water industry’s size, the amount of water actually sold is relatively tiny, compared to tap water volumes. To put it in context, the entire U.S. bottled water market is currently about 10 billion gallons; New York City goes through that amount of tap water in one week.

    The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) and its members are committed to the responsible and efficient use of all natural resources related to bottled water production. Our industry is proud to continuously be on the forefront of important issues such as water conservation and management, the efficient use of water, and responsibly managing groundwater and spring water resources.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris. I appreciate you taking the time. Based on the statistics you provide (which, for any skeptical readers, I will point out that I was able to corroborate through various independent sources) it certainly appears that bottled water is among the least of our troubles. The average person uses as much water in a single bath (about 35 gallons, according to the USGS) as he or she consumes from bottles in an entire year.

    That said, it still troubles me that a state like California, with such significant drought issues, would not even measure the quantity of water going into bottles in any meaningful way. Especially if that number is so small as to be insignificant, no one should resist making it available to legislators and voters alike.

    I do have a few further questions–feel free to answer if you like, though I recognize that the comment section on a relatively obscure blog may not be worth your time:

    – According to your web site (http://www.bottledwater.org/newsroom/policy-statement/groundwater-management) “In 2001, total annual groundwater withdrawals for bottled water production were determined to be 6.15 billion gallons. Thus, groundwater withdrawals for bottled water
    production represent only 0.020 percent (two one-hundredths of one percent) of the total fresh groundwater withdrawals in the U.S.” However, there is no source cited as to how this 6.15 billion gallon number was determined, and I wonder whether it takes into account production in states (like California) that do not require public disclosure of this statistic.

    – I see that, based on 1995 numbers, the largest amount of groundwater removed by far goes to irrigation, which of course tends to feed that removed water directly back into the local water table. In fact, almost all groundwater uses (public consumption, livestock, power generation, etc) leads that water immediately back into the local water table. I wonder, because I couldn’t find a statistic on this, if you have any estimate of (a) what percent of bottled groundwater leaves its home watershed for sale, and (b) how long water remains in a bottle, on average, between production and consumption.

    – I’d also be very curious to know, because once again I couldn’t find a statistic, approximately how much fresh water is presently locked up in bottles or other storage for consumer sale, on warehouse or supermarket shelves, etc?

  3. My sister here in upstate New York commented to me today that bottled water she bought was from California. I found it hard to believe drought stricken California would export water to water logged NY, but apparently they do. The stupidity and inefficiency of this is stunning.

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