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New Front in the Battle Over Mt. Shasta’s ‘Sacred’ Spring Water

A forthcoming study of Crystal Geyser’s project to open a new water bottling operation is an important step. But critics fear it won’t go far enough.

Written by Jane Braxton Little Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

MT. SHASTA, Calif. – Facing a lawsuit and mounting local opposition, Crystal Geyser has agreed to study the environmental effects of reopening a bottling plant near Mount Shasta.

Company officials recently became aware the proposed plant would require a permit from the Siskiyou County Air Pollution Control District. As a result, they agreed to conduct an environmental impact report (EIR), a comprehensive look at how water extractions will affect the region.

The proposal has become a target of criticism, in large part because of its timing amid California’s severe drought. Because California has little surplus water to spare for a bottling operation or any other purpose, the Mount Shasta proposal is certain to receive close scrutiny.

“By preparing this EIR, we will be able to analyze all potential impacts of the plant operations in Mt. Shasta,” the company announced in a two-paragraph press release issued September 16 by its public relations firm.

Crystal Geyser released its statement two weeks after a local citizens group filed a lawsuit challenging county zoning regulations and the plant’s groundwater permits.

Opponents of the $5 million operation greeted news of the EIR as a partial victory in their campaign to force Crystal Geyser to release more information about its operations to the public. While they welcome the environmental review, many questions remain, said Bruce Hillman, president of We Advocate Through Environmental Review (WATER), the organization that filed the lawsuit in August.

Chief among the questions is whether the air district is the appropriate public agency to conduct the environmental review. Hillman believes it has “neither the expertise nor the enforcement capabilities” required, he said in a prepared statement.

State environmental laws require that the EIR addresses the entire project. That would involve the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors in zoning and other land-use issues, and the City of Mount Shasta in wastewater issues, Hillman said.

It is currently unclear what agency will analyze water extractions for the bottling plant. California is in the midst of rolling out a new law to regulate groundwater, but limits on withdrawals will not be required for 25 years, and only after formation of local agencies to manage the resource.

“The entire community will be watching this EIR process and wants to participate to ensure we have effective protection of our community and our precious natural environment,” said Geneva Omann, secretary of the WATER group.

Crystal Geyser announced plans in 2013 to open an idled Coca-Cola bottling plant, pumping from an existing 200-foot well that draws on the snowmelt and springs percolating through a maze of underground lava tubes at the base of Mount Shasta. The county’s arrangement with Crystal Geyser posed no caps on what the company can pump and export, some of which will be packaged as bottled tea and flavored beverages.

Many neighbors have vivid memories of household pumps sucking gravel and wells going dry when the Coca-Cola plant was operating. With California deep into a four-year drought, other residents are concerned about dwindling water supplies throughout the Mount Shasta area.

Panther Meadow spring, where members of the Winnemem Wintu tribe trace their origins, ran dry recently for the first time in tribal memory. In Mount Shasta City, residents are being asked to reduce their water usage as output drops from Cold Springs, the municipal source.

Crystal Geyser’s EIR announcement prompted a September 26 rally that began at Big Springs, a pool of cold, pristine water at the base of Mount Shasta and headwaters of the Sacramento River. Protesters marched from Big Springs to the Crystal Geyser plant site carrying signs reading “No one owns water” and “Water Is Life.”

Caleen Sisk, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, said Big Springs and all waters that originate from Mount Shasta are sacred.

“The sacred being brings us a message that the plant can’t be here. And if we’re not successful here, the mountain may take care of it instead,” Sisk said.

A coalition of environmental and tribal groups is demanding that the Crystal Geyser EIR consider no project as one of its alternatives, said Vicki Gold, a spokesperson for Water Flows Free, an organization focused on water privatization in California. She strongly opposed the Air Pollution Control District as the appropriate agency to oversee the environmental review.

“To have the APCD be involved in determining mitigations for noise, aesthetics, effluent and water extraction in drought is ludicrous,” Gold said.

WATER will continue to pursue its lawsuit challenging Siskiyou County zoning and groundwater extraction issues, Hillman said.

Jane Braxton Little writes about science and natural resources from Plumas County, California.

Top image: Caleen Sisk, right, chief and spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, speaks to protesters at a Sept. 26 rally at the Crystal Geyser plant in Mt. Shasta. (Dan Bacher)

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