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Leon Kaye headshot

French Billionaire Clashes With Rural California Town Over Water Rights

By Leon Kaye

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

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye