By Peter Fimrite, reposted from sfgate.com – The clean freshwater that squeezes out of the crags and burbles up into springs and creeks around Mount Shasta is cherished far and wide as a curative natural serum for every ailment short of hurt feelings.
That may explain why the mineral-rich water is now a source of so much pain in the picturesque city of Mount Shasta, at the base of the Siskiyou County volcano.
To the dismay of residents, Crystal Geyser recently came to town hoping to turn a profit. The Calistoga-based purveyor of water and juice wants to tap a local aquifer known as Big Spring, bottle the water and sell it.
The move has infuriated environmentalists, local American Indian tribes and residents of this city of 3,394, whose interest in the resource borders on the spiritual.
Opponents claim the bottling operation could suck wells dry and deplete the aquifer, which fills Siskiyou County rivers and streams and feeds the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Huge quantities of chemicals, juice and other runoff could overwhelm the wastewater treatment plant, which is barely big enough now for the locals, according to opponents.
Citizens group’s fears
Gold’s group says county officials are rubber-stamping an environmentally risky project without requiring an environmental impact report or getting assurances from Crystal Geyser that it won’t ramp up water usage over time. This, she said, at a time when California is facing a potentially historic drought.
“This is the same aquifer that the homeowners who live nearby share,” Gold said. “There is no environmental impact review, no restrictions on groundwater extraction and Crystal Geyser has carte blanche in terms of traffic and to build as many buildings as they want.”
Doug MacLean, the chief executive officer for Crystal Geyser, said the WATER concerns are overblown. The plant the company will use, he said, was built by Coca-Cola to bottle water for Dannon and was vetted and permitted before the soft drink giant closed it four years ago.
“Our usage will be roughly half of what the Coke/Dannon plant was using, and they had no problems,” MacLean said. “This is a very, very abundant water source. The amount we use will be very insignificant relative to the amount available.”
The water fight is important because the area around 14,179-foot Mount Shasta is the source of much of California’s drinking water. Melted glacier water and runoff from storms flows into a labyrinth of lava tubes and underground channels snaking through the mountainous region.
The cold, mineral-rich water filters through the porous soil and burbles up into numerous creeks, springs and tributaries of the Sacramento, McCloud and Klamath rivers. Much of it is captured behind 602-foot-tall Shasta Dam, which is part of the Central Valley Project, a huge federal system that provides water for fish, irrigation, drinking water and hydropower.
Crystal Geyser paid $5 million in October for the 145,000-square-foot bottling plant, which was once the site of a cedar lumber mill and is zoned for heavy industrial use. The operation, which is on 266 acres, was abandoned by Coca-Cola in 2010 when the soda company stopped selling spring water.
The facility, which is under county jurisdiction but would have to use city services, must do approximately $10 million in waste disposal system upgrades before it can open in 2015. Crystal Geyser has obtained a $3 million federal grant for the work, which it is matching, MacLean said.
He said the initial plan is to have a single bottling line, which would use an average of 115,000 gallons of water a day to make mineral water, juice, flavored tea and mint drinks. A second line would be opened in five to seven years, bumping up water use to an average of 217,000 gallons, with a maximum of 365,000 gallons a day. Coca-Cola used 250,000 to 300,000 gallons a day, he said.
MacLean said the company will eventually phase out its Calistoga and Bakersfield plants and move its entire operation to Siskiyou County.
Greg Plucker, the Siskiyou community development director, said Crystal Geyser did not need county approval because bottling is a permitted use and his department does not have the authority to require an environmental review because an EIR was done when the facility was built.
The bottling plant could do wonders for the economy of the former lumber region, which now relies mostly on tourism, said Michael Kobseff, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
“It will help the county and city, it will put people to work and it may bring people in to add to the workforce,” Kobseff said. “Siskiyou County is the 14th most economically stressed county in the nation. We need family-wage-paying jobs year round, not unlike we had when we had mills in operation, but we lost that some time ago and never recovered.”
Opponents, including the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, are skeptical given previous battles over water use. Residents of the nearby town of McCloud waged a bitter battle with Nestle Waters several years ago after the company proposed a 1 million-square-foot bottling facility. The plan then was to siphon 1,250 gallons per minute from tributaries feeding into the McCloud River, also an important feeder for Shasta Reservoir.
Nestle was forced to pull out in 2008 after sustained community resistance and a threat by then-Attorney General Jerry Brown to sue unless the county first evaluated the effects of global warming on the future water supply.
Environmental review push
Gold and her cohorts say county officials can require an environmental review of truck traffic and electrical, water and wastewater usage. Instead, she said, county officials are relying on “best-case scenario” estimates that can easily be flouted once the plant is up and running.
The lack of oversight is a reflection of a county overseen by supervisors who recently voted 4-1 to pursue secession because they don’t like state regulations, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act, critics said.
“You have a resource-rich county and you have no regulation … during a drought,” Gold said. “It’s all about jobs. What the county is saying, essentially, is that any dirty industry can come to the most pristine area that everyone in the state is dependent on.”