September 2017

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I sometimes wonder how people pick their villains.  The California drought is, to my mind, a great example of this.

At least in my circles on Facebook and other places, the favorite villain in this saga is Nestlé.  They are, by their own account, drawing 725 million gallons of water a year for their 5 California Bottled water plants, which is actually more than the oft-quoted figure of 400 million gallons.  They then have the audacity to sell this water to willing buyers for a handsome profit.  Oddly enough, those buyers are also mainly in California, and most of those buyers have ready access to tap water.  So it's safe to assume that each gallon of water sold by Nestlé and consumed in California means that a reduction in consumption of just under one gallon of tap water.

That doesn't mean bottling water in California, is, well, a wash.  According to the bottled water trade group, it takes 1.4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of bottled water.  I believe that the actual number should be higher, since it doesn't such things as the water consumed by workers at the plant.  It also requires more energy to move water by truck or rail than by pipeline.  And when you're done with the product, you're left with a bottle.  Recycling a plastic bottle does keep it out of a landfill, but from what I can tell it actually takes more water to recycle a water bottle than to produce the same amount of "virgin" plastic.

So it's pretty clear that on the supply side, bottled water is an ecological loser, especially in a drought area like California.  But given that people are freely chosing to buy the stuff even when tap water is readily available, what are the alternatives?  Does it really make more sense from an overall environmental standpoint to send water by, truck, train or boat, from, say, Fuji, France, Maine or even the Olympic Peninsula?  So if Nestlé is evil (and at least for this essay, I'll accept that they are), it's the same evil as a drug pusher.  They are selling a product which people buy and consume far more than is rational for them to do so.

How about other beverage companies?  Budweiser has two mega-breweries in California, MillerCoors has one as well, and there are perhaps 500 other smaller breweries.  Beer is water intensive; not counting water used to grow hops or grains it takes about 4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of beer.  All of the major soft-drink companies have bottling plants in California as well, and it takes about 2 gallons of water to produce a gallon of soda.  Wine?  I'd rather skip that one for now; it raises the ugly issue of agricultural versus urban use.  So if Nestlé is evil, why isn't there the same rancor about other drink companies?

All of which brings me to golf.  According to the Washington Times (not exactly a liberal rag), each 18-hole golf course consumes (conservatively, naturally) about 90 million gallons of water a year.  So Nestlé uses about as much water as eight golf courses.  The article also states that there are about 860 golf courses in California.  So as an industry, golfing uses about 100 times the California water as Nestlé.

Golf should be an easy target.  It's a recreation of the well-to-do; the average golfer has a household income of $95,000 and spends about $3000 a year on the game.  The people who play it are predominately white (~87%) and male (~78%).  Nor do golf course operators exactly endear themselves to the general populace; threatening to sue local artists for offering a painting of a tree for sale is not a way to win friends.

So hence my bewilderment.  While I understand the need for simple "answers" for such complex problems as the politics of water, why are so many electrons spent vilifying Nestlé when there are so many attractive alternative villains out there?
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