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City considers large water user permits

Sacramento officials should consider requiring special use permits for large water users, including water and beverage bottling companies such as Nestlé, a City Council committee decided Thursday.

The council’s Law & Legislation Committee passed a recommendation that the City Council approve a working group to explore whether the city’s biggest water users should be subject to conditional use permits that would help give the city more ability to monitor and regulate their water use.

The recommendation was approved unanimously Thursday afternoon by the committee’s three present members, Chair Sandy Sheedy and councilmen Steve Cohn and Robbie Waters.

"We have a scarce resource that we don’t seem to have any regulation on, other than you pay for the amount you use," Cohn said. "It almost sounds like we need to think about if you use above a certain amount of water…there ought to be a permit. The city ought to have some way to review that, rather than just be forced to sell it at whatever our rate is."

The committee also heard about the city’s plans to consider creating tiered water rates that could take effect in 2012 or sooner. The city "may actually be subsidizing" water consumption by the biggest users, Cohn said, adding that water use should also be regulated to encourage conservation and sustainability.

The committee’s decision was made despite a recommendation by the city’s Community Development Department against requiring special use permits for water and beverage bottling companies. Bottling plants are permitted industrial land uses in zones approved for light industrial, heavy commercial and heavy industrial businesses in Sacramento.

However, the committee’s proposal would not be limited to such companies.

The fourth committee member, Lauren Hammond, was absent. Last fall, Councilman Kevin McCarty, who is not a committee member, proposed an emergency ordinance to amend the city’s zoning code to immediately require a special permit, and thus, environmental review and City Council oversight, for bottling companies to operate in the city. He made the proposal after city staff approved Nestlé Waters North America opening a water-bottling plant in his South Sacramento district.

Nestlé bottles and sells the most bottled water in this country. Globally, the Swiss multinational company used 10.82 billion gallons of water in 2006 and sold $10 billion of water under different brand names in 2007, according to a report from Food and Water Watch in Washington, D.C.

Nestlé told the city about 250 acre feet — or nearly 82 million gallons — of city-treated American River water would be bottled each year. Nestlé Project Manager Chris Kemp also said the company expected to bottle 30 million gallons of Sacramento tap water in 2010, while future use would be determined by sales. Existing water pipes could bring 250 acre feet of water to the warehouse if operations were run 24 hours a day all year, but that was only expected during peak months, he said.

The city did not seek public input or perform an environmental analysis of the plant’s expected impact before it began operation last winter after a failed, six-year battle to bottle spring water in McCloud near Mt. Shasta.

The city does not regulate how much water industrial water customers use except to impose drought restrictions at times. There are no current drought restrictions on industrial users, although there are drought restrictions for outdoor irrigation use by residential users.

On Thursday, Sheedy agreed with Cohn’s proposal, including the need to look at all of the biggest water consumers, regardless of whether the water is bottled and sold, used to make soup or to crush cement. Nestlé shouldn’t be "singled out," she said.

"I think we have to look at what else is coming here," Sheedy said. "We are going to be losing that commodity if we don’t start looking at it."

No more than 20 people turned out for the meeting. Some said they only found out about the meeting this week.

Representatives from Nestlé, Sacramento Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and the Sacramento Metro Chamber spoke out against requiring a special permit for bottling companies. After the meeting, Dave Palais, Nestlé Water’s natural resource manager for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, said the company wouldn’t oppose an "overall evaluation" of water use by all users.

Sacramento Coca-Cola, which has been operating since 1927, "would be very disappointed if there would be new hurdles that were put in our way" for opening a big, new plant in North Natomas, the company’s executive vice president, Bob Brown, said.

Several people spoke out in support of a special permit, including members of grassroots group Save Our Water Sacramento, which brought Nestlé’s plans to open a Sacramento plant to light.

"I’m wondering what our children will do for water — and our grandchildren — once it’s all contractually committed to others?" said Maxine Clark, a member of the Save the American River Association. "The word is out now: Nestlé got their way. When will we say no? Will we say no, ever?"

Bill Allayud, California Director of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, said other cities held public forums so people could weigh in before water bottling plants were opened. Large water consumption by such plants can have "multiple impacts," he said.

"Water is not scarce in the city right now," he said. "But in the future, it could well become scarce."

McCarty later applauded the committee’s decision.

"This is an important step toward going where we’re trying to go," he said. "This issue isn’t going away."


Photo by Suzanne Hurt, a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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