The bottled water industry has become the newest battlefront in California's struggle to cope with its devastating nearly four-year drought.

Its critics say corporations are exploiting the state's "archaic," historically hands-off approach to water regulation at the expense of a precious resource, and petitions to shut them down are gaining momentum. 

Multinational giants like Nestlé Waters, Walmart and Coca-Cola operate some of California's 111 bottling plants and have historic rights to vast water resources throughout the state. They continue to divert water from various sources despite the ongoing drought. 

A coalition of non-profit groups recently launched an online petition aimed at Nestlé​ Waters, calling for a moratorium on what one spokesman called "the ultimate form of water privatization." It has accrued more than 160,000 signatures to date, and a similar petition naming Walmart has more than 45,000. 

"The bottom line is that we don't see bottling the public's water and selling it back to them as especially useful during a drought like this," says Adam Scow, the California director of Food and Water Watch, one of the groups that started the campaign. 

"As the laws are written, Nestlé and Walmart are not breaking the rules but they are taking advantage of the situation," he adds.

There is no doubt that California is in crisis. A recent NASA analysis of satellite data found that the state has just a year of water left in its reservoirs, and groundwater is depleting at an unsustainable rate. The drought has been amplified by abnormally high temperatures and a severely diminished snow pack.

Last January, for example, was the driest since record keeping began in 1895. The snow pack in some areas is below 10 per cent of the historical average.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the first-ever mandatory limits on water use in urban areas. The agricultural sector — which accounts for about 80 per cent of developed water use in the state — and industry are largely exempt from the new restrictions. 

'It's a fair question'

Scow says that companies like Nestlé​ Waters and Walmart, who source groundwater, spring water and even tap water from municipal supplies with very little oversight, are "among the worst examples of corporate excess."

Recent investigations have highlighted some troubling instances of bottled water giants exploiting water resources during the drought. 

Starbucks announced it would be moving its Ethos brand operation from California to Pennsylvania after Mother Jones magazine found it was sourcing the water from an area of "exceptional drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Similarly, the Palm Springs-based newspaper The Desert Sun published a story in March that revealed Nestlé​ Waters, which operates five bottling plants in the state, has been diverting tens of millions of litres of water from the San Bernadino National Forest on a permit that has not been renewed since 1987.  

California Drought

California depends on snowfall for nearly 80 per cent of its usable water in any given year. The snowpack is some areas is below 10 per cent of the historical average. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

CEO Tim Brown said in a recent interview that the company will "absolutely not" move its operations. "In fact, if I could increase it, I would," he said, citing growing consumer demand and the fact that bottled water accounts for only a fraction of water use in California. He added that Nestlé Waters has implemented new technology to conserve water in its California operations. 

It's true that even if every company bottling California water packed up and left, there would be no discernible impact on the drought, says Faith Kearns, an analyst at the California Institute for Water Resources. But, she adds, there's a symbolism attached to bottled water.

"The overall volume is not huge, but in a time when water is so scarce, people are going to ask, 'Is this the way we should be using our water? I think it's a fair question to be asking."

The watery Wild West

The debate over bottled water, however, is symptomatic of a much larger malady: California's "archaic" approach to managing the resource, particularly groundwater. It's the only state in the American West that does not consistently measure groundwater or regulate its use, according to public policy analysts. 

California drought Starbucks

Starbucks is moving its Ethos water operation to Pennsylvania after an investigation found it was sourcing water from an area experiencing "exceptional drought." (Mike Blake/Reuters)

"Our approach has been mostly reactionary to whatever crisis is at hand," says Caitrin Chappelle, associate director at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a non-partisan think tank. "But you can't manage what you don't measure."

According to Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there are such large holes in the data — how much water is being pumped, how much is being replenished and how much was there in the first place — that "nobody knows how large the problem really is."

Complicating matters is that water rights are based on an "I got here first" system, and many landowners think of groundwater as a private resource that shouldn't be regulated by the state, says Patzert. "It really is just the Wild West right now." 

Resilience is key

Many scientists and environmentalists are also concerned that, as the drought continues, the massive farming operations in the Central Valley will increasingly turn to California's limited supply of groundwater.

The PPIC estimated that in 2014 the agricultural sector — which cultivates more than 3.6-million hectares of irrigated farmland and wields significant political influence — replaced 70 per cent of unavailable surface water by pumping groundwater.

Growers have been hit less hard than other sectors by the new water restrictions, but many still find themselves facing cutbacks from the big state and federal irrigation projects, and last year farmers left more than 400,000 acres unplanted — a $2 billion economic hit, according to the L.A. Times.

While the current drought will likely get worse before it gets better, pressure is mounting on California's lawmakers to address the broken water management system. A bill passed last year will force counties to draft sustainability plans by 2022, but compliance will not be mandatory until 20 years after that. 

"We all know we have droughts in California, and we're going to have another one after this one," says Chappelle. "Sustainability means being in a place where we aren't caught with our pants down again."