French Billionaire Clashes With Rural California Town Over Water Rights

California, water rights, Crystal Geyser, Leon Kaye, bottled water, Beaughan Spring, Mount Shasta, native americans
The springs surrounding Mount Shasta provide water best used locally, say nearby residents.

Weed, California, home to around 2,500 people and just south of the Oregon border in the shadow of Mount Shasta, is best known for its offbeat name and its appearance in John Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men.”

But now this small town in Siskiyou County is the focal point in the fight between a community’s right to local water and a company’s right to sell it. In an area still recovering from the devastating 2014 Boles Fire, Weed is the David trying to find a voice against a Goliath that insists the town’s water is better served if it is bottled and exported to Japan.

Weed’s residents often tap into the nearby Beaughan Spring, especially during times of drought. Many homes scattered around this remote area in Northern California have piped this source of water onto their properties for years.

But the land surrounding the spring is owned by Roseburg Forest Products. Two years ago, the timber company, which has had its share of financial struggles, entered into a controversial agreement with Crystal Geyser. The bottled water company, which now bottles spring water in a plant abandoned by Coca-Cola earlier this decade, is part of a conglomerate co-owned by the French billionaire Pierre Papillaud. The owner of several bottled water brands worldwide, Papillaud has even starred in advertisements for France’s Rozana Mineral Water.

The Beaughan Spring, which along with other springs surrounding Mount Shasta are considered sacred to local Native Americans, is next on Papillaud’s list. Weed residents have been granted access to this water for $1 a year for the past half-century. But this year, Roseburg hiked up the annual fee to $97,500, with a stipulation in the contract that directs the town to find other water sources of water for its citizens. And tensions flared between one of the poorer regions in California and the companies determined to win this water war, the New York Times reported this week.

The mayor of Weed, Ken Palfini, told Thomas Fuller of the Times that Papillaud’s relations with local officials bordered on abusive. Weed officials claimed the octogenarian demanded that the city release its rights to the Beaughan Spring, threatening to “blow up the bottling plant” if he didn’t get his way. Papillaud’s son eventually visited the city to apologize, but the damage was done.

Residents and civic officials in Weed insist they have documentation proving water rights to this spring. Those claims date back to when the previous owner of Roseburg’s timber lands, International Paper, sold those holdings in 1982 with the stipulation that the city could have unrestricted access to this source of water. And in any event, the city insists it has no other options in an area where some sources of water could be extremely toxic.

The Times story outlines Roseburg’s suggestion that the city drill a well elsewhere on the company’s property, but the city balked at the fact it is located only a few hundred yards from what is now an EPA Superfund site. For a city with a municipal budget of only a few million dollars, to spend as much as $2 million to drill a well in a dubious area makes no sense: No one wants anything remotely close to the Flint water crisis.

Earlier this summer, an alliance of citizens filed a lawsuit against Roseburg and the city of Weed. The plaintiffs argue the arrangement between the city and Roseburg was made without a proper environmental review. And they’re seeking an extension of the current water lease.

Weed citizens are emboldened by a recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court. That state’s high court ruled in August that the city of Missoula could seize water sources by eminent domain in order to protect municipal water supplies for the public good.

Papillaud, meanwhile, did not help his company’s cause, as he downplayed local concerns over water in Weed by rationalizing that there is no “blood water” or anything nefarious such as child labor involved.

Image credit: Josh Steinitz/Flickr

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

8 responses

  1. The officials in Weed should use eminent domain and seize the water source AND ALL LAND BETWEEN THE SOURCE AND THE CITY LIMIT. this should ensure a constant stream of water to whomever decides to stay in Weed. I am sure the bottling plant will stay long enough to use all the resources they get from the town for nothing then they will leave without a word. Corporations do this all the time and these corporate raiders are no different. WATER IS THE ONE THING WE NEED DAILY AND AFTER THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY FINISHES WITH THEIR RAPE OF OUR RESOURCES fresh clean drinkable WATER WILL COST MORE THAN GOLD.

  2. um… fine, frenchie! go ahead and blow up the water bottling plant! (In fact, feel free to blow up the one they’re trying to open one town over here in Mount Shasta, too).

  3. I live in the next town just south of Weed in the town of Mount Shasta. The same thing is happening here also. We have been battling the mega-corporation Nestle for several years now trying to prevent them from stealing all of our precious water and bottling it under the Crystal
    Geyser brand and shipping it to Japan. AT full capacity, the plant will be pumping over 1 million gallons per day from our water supply while the citizens are simultaneously being told to cut back and ration due to extreme drought conditions. Nestle has no restrictions on the amount of water they can extract. The CEO of Nestle is officially on record stating that people have no inherent right to water and it should be privatized. They will stop at nothing. It is apparent that they have even reached the pockets of our local politicians because we have to fight them just to get them to fight for us, the people that elected them!

  4. Natural resources are finite, and water is the most precious of them. Given the critical situation with water across the nation, no one should get away with taking the only water source from a town’s population that has had the rights to that source for such a length of time, especially to bottle and sell it outside the country And it sounds as though the town legally has the rights to draw water from the spring anyhow. We won’t even get into the claim the Native Americans have on it . As for the French billionaire with the callous disregard for the people of the town who threatened to blow up the plant…. that sounds like domestic terrorism and should be prosecuted as such, with his assets being seized and him being deported with “Never Return” stamped on his forehead. Problem solved.

  5. Dogitydog is correct that we are dealing with a foreign water bottling corporation in Mount Shasta, but it isn’t Nestle. Nestle unsuccessfully attempted to open the largest plant on the planet in neighboring McCloud. Crystal Geyser Water Company (CGWC) produces Juice Squeeze, Metromint, Tejava and now is considering beginning with just water because of the blowback here in Mount Shasta. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of the multi billion dollar Japanese corporation Otsuka Pharmaceutical Holdings. Otsuka also apparently owns 49% of the French company Crystal Geyser Roxanne (CGR) in Weed. If the Transpacific Partnership passes all local, regional, state and federal regulations could be moot in the name of international open trade and profits. There would be no way to protect our water, our ecosystems.

    Water bottling in single use disposable containers, most of which end up as pollution in our landfills and oceans, is an idea whose time has passed. Boycott bottled water. Boycott their other products too.There should be “for emergency use only” on all labels and on glass, not plastic. The hydrology of this volcanic area is unstudied. Neighboring residential wells have suffered under the prior CocaCola production period. The Mazzei well in Weed which is located very close to the CGR plant and supplies south Weed is down 100 feet!!! Water is Life. No one owns water!!

    1. Thank you for the correction Flowingwaters, sometimes I get my evil corporations confused with one another out of frustration. Maybe it’s because they all have the same agenda.

  6. So true. That is why we must boycott ALL water bottling corporations, not target just one like Nestle or consumers simply move to another spring water sourced product, transferring the problem to another community like Mount Shasta and Weed. In the case of Otsuka/ Crystal Geyser Roxanne parent company in Weed and Olancha in California, they produce Nature Made Vitamins, Soy Joy and are a major pharmaceutical and chemical corporation. According to their financials, consumer products are only 2% of their gross receipts. Bottled water is a small portion of those consumer products. The French Company Roxanne (51% ownership) may have other investments as well.

    Buying single use disposable plastic water bottles has to become the subject of discussion and shaming, like tobacco use. Remember the 1970’s very effective advertisement with the Native American rowing in the river with pollution surrounding him and tears in his eyes? That is the kind of campaign we need.

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