“Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”
This was the answer Nestlé Waters North America CEO Tim Brown gave when Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, asked him whether he would ever consider moving his company's bottling operations out of California during an interview on Wednesday with Larry Mantle on AirTalk.
"If I stop bottling water tomorrow," said Brown, "people would buy another brand of bottled water. As the second largest bottler in the state, we’re filling a role many others aren’t filling. It’s driven by consumer demand, it’s driven by an on-the-go society that needs to hydrate. Frankly, we’re very happy [consumers] are doing it in a healthier way.”
As the Golden State wheezes its way through a historic drought, criticism for bottled water companies operating factories here has been harsh. Just over a week after a Mother Jones investigation, Starbucks announced that it would be moving bottling operations for its Ethos Water brand from California to Pennsylvania because of severe drought conditions. A day before the Mother Jones story broke, Brown wrote an op-ed in the San Bernardino Sun on why the bottled water industry isn't contributing to the drought.
On Tuesday, Nestlé said that it is investing $7 million on technology and upgrades that would turn its Modesto milk factory into a “zero water” by extracting water from the milk production process and using it in factory operations.
“We have these cooling towers [for milk] that use water,” says Brown. “Previously, that would have been fresh water that we would’ve drawn out of the municipal supply. Now, we can use our own water that had come previously from the milk. That water, normally, would’ve gone into the waste stream. Now it can be reused or recycled.”
Brown says Nestlé outfitted its factory in Jalisco, Mexico with the "zero water" technology last year and doing so at the Modesto factory will save almost 63 million gallons of water annually. He added that they've found another 26 million gallons they could save a year at Nestlé USA plants in Bakersfield and Tulare.
"That's adaptation," says Brown. "Regardless of whether we were in the bottled water business or not, we would need to be doing things like this to operate in a water-scarce environment."
Famiglietti, who teaches Earth system science at UC Irvine in addition to being NASA JPL's top water scientist, says Nestlé has a strong reputation when it comes to environmental stewardship. But he says bottling water still takes 30 to 50 percent more water than turning on the tap, and he's concerned companies like Nestlé or Starbucks might be using and bottling thousands of acre-feet of water in California.
Famiglietti warns that while it may not seem like much, it's more than a drop in the bucket.
“An acre-foot [nearly 326,000 gallons] is enough water to supply an entire family for a year. So, in this time when we’re being asked to flush our toilets less and less, we have to ask the question: Is this really an environmentally, ethically correct thing to be doing right now?”
Still, Nestlé’s Brown says being water-conscious extends far beyond the bottled water industry.
“Everybody in every facet of water in California has to find better design, better use, better ways to be more efficient. We have to look at design and how we touch water in a water scarce environment. There’s been 17 droughts in the last 48 years. We’re in this one, there will be more, and we all have to look at how water is going to move throughout the state.”
The upgrades to Nestlé's Modesto plant are expected to be finished by the end of 2016. Nestlé Waters North America has five bottled water facilities in the state of California, and its brands include Arrowhead, Pure Life, Poland Spring, and Deer Park.
Meanwhile, as the drought here in California trickles on, Famiglietti suggests that the greater problem lies not in the bottled water industry or even in the drought.
“I think that we also have, with the greater water crisis here that we face in California, a human behavior problem. We need to change our behavior with respect to water and our understanding of how much water we actually have available to us, not only in California, but around the country.”
Jay Famiglietti, hydrologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor of Earth System Science at UC Irvine
Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America