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Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco

"Every gallon of water you conserve is energy conserved," he said. "Not only could San Diego do more conservation, but they don't recycle any wastewater to potable water standards. That's much less energy intensive."

Poseidon counters by saying that it invested $60 million in energy efficiency measures for the plant and will be installing solar panels on the roof. Perhaps most telling is that the company sees itself as vending reliability. "It's not the current cost of water the San Diego Water Authority is concerned about, but the future cost for an acre-foot," Maloni said. "There's a dollar figure you can put on reliability. Public agencies are willing to pay us a little more for that."

Which gets back to a comment Barlow made about capitalizing on crisis. "We are frightened half to death and everyone who looks at it, right-wing or left-wing, sees that. ... They use the crisis to say we have no alternative except to go into massive desalination plants."

And, as Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute pointed out, San Diego wasn't calling for proposals to bring it more water. "Poseidon wanted to build a desalination plant and it came to San Diego. That's one way to do it. The other way is for a municipality to say we want a desalination plant, we're opening it up to bids, let's have a competition. That didn't happen, and instead we have one contractor."

Geever added, "Poseidon has been really successful at lobbying politicians and convincing regulators to give them permits."

Which points to one of the chronic ills of managing water systems, particularly in California where water has always been political. "In the 20th century decisions about water were made by white males in back rooms," said Gleick. "It solved a lot of problems, but it led to a lot of environmental problems. The days when water decisions made in back rooms should be over. And they aren't over, and that's part of the problem."


Nowhere is that more obvious than the delta, where the state's two most prominent rivers — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — meet the Pacific Ocean just north of San Francisco. It's ground zero for one of the most charged political fights in the state.

Two-thirds of California's water comes from the delta. About 80 percent of it goes to cropland, watering about half of the state's $35 billion agricultural industry, much of it through historic water rights that have been granted to a small lobby of powerful growers who sell their surplus rights for profit. Another 18 percent goes to urban water needs, and — in spite of the fact that this is the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America — only 2 percent of the water remains for natural environmental flows.

Delta issues are legion and begin at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, near Mount Shasta, a land Mark Franco describes as an Eden. "The deer, salmon, and acorns that we eat — everything that we need is there," Franco told the Guardian. "It's such a beautiful place. Now they're drying it, that Eden."

Franco is head of the Winnemem Wintu, or "little water people" tribe, and is fighting the first phase of water diversions from the Sacramento River, 200 miles north of the capitol where companies like Coca-Cola, Crystal Geyser, and now, potentially, Nestlé, pump millions of gallons a year into small plastic bottles and ship it around the country to sell in groceries and convenience stores.

"Here in the US, people have become soft. They've become so used to just having things directly handed to them that they no longer understand where their water comes from," he said at the anti-corporate water conference.