Bottled-Water Supplier Is Second Outfit Hit with Hefty State Drought Fine

Monday, September 07, 2015

A company supplying water to bottling companies that was told by the state to stop tapping Sierra Nevada springs last year became the second entity in California fined for flouting drought directives.

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) ordered Sugar Pine Spring Water in Tuolumne County to pay $225,000 for allegedly taking 22 acre-feet of water over a 170-day period. Owner G. Scott Fahey barred inspectors from his property, so they monitored tanker-truck traffic from his facility using surveillance cameras outside his locked gates.

Fahey holds two post-1914 junior water rights permits, which in wetter times gave him and 9,000 others priority to water sources over everybody but pre-1914 senior rights holders, like the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area. The district was fined $1.5 million for refusing to stop pumping and won a short-lived judicial victory before the court made clear the state could tell everyone to stop using water, including riparian users drawing directly from streams and rivers.

Senior- and junior-water rights are part of an archaic system that ill-prepared the state for the four-year drought that threatens to become a permanent fixture of California life. The Associated Press, in an introduction to its database of California riparian and senior rights holders, described it thusly. “Nineteenth-century laws allow nearly 4,000 companies, farms and other water rights holders to use an unmonitored amount of water for free―and in some cases, to sell what they don't need.”

The state’s cease-and-desist order (pdf) described how Fahey diverted water from four streams into pipes that connected to a single pipeline, filling two 35,000-gallon tanks at a bulk filling station. Investigators captured pictures of 99 tanker trucks accessing the station between July 12 and August 5.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency on January 17, 2014, and five months later the board notified all holders of pre-1914 rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Watershed that they could no longer draw water, except in very limited circumstances. The “notice of unavailability” was temporarily lifted on October 31, 2014, and reinstated in the San Joaquin Watershed on April 23.

Fahey indicated to the SWRCB that he would continue to take water, but had limited contact with the board. He now has 20 days to appeal the fine. Violations after that could run $10,000 a day.

The complaint against Fahey doesn’t mention names of the bottlers he supplies, but a 2011 story by the Sonora Union Democrat identified Calistoga and Nestlé’s Arrowhead as two of his bigger contracts. Mother Jones said he has supplied water to Starbucks’ through its Ethos Water brand, which announced in May it was shifting operations to Pennsylvania after coming under intense criticism.  

So far, Nestlé, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Crystal Geyser and other owners of the state’s 108 bottling operations are not similarly conflicted. They’ve been doing it for more than 100 years with pretty much no oversight.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Is Fining a Company That's Supplied Starbucks' Bottled Water—for Making the Drought Worse (by Anna Lenzer, Mother Jones)

Bottled Water Co. Slapped With $225K Fine for Ignoring Drought (by Nick Cahill, Courthouse News Service)

California Orders Sugar Pine Spring Water to Stop Tapping Sierra Springs (by Scott Smith, Associated Press)

Fresh Water Flows from Sugar Pine Spring (by Ryan Campbell, Sonora Union Democrat)

Reprieve for Senior Water Rights Holders Lasts Three Weeks (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Tuolumne County Water Purveyor Faces $224,875 Penalty, Cease and Desist Order for Illegal Diversion and Bulk Delivery of Water (State Water Resources Control Board) (pdf)

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