Concerns grow over Safeway plant in Merced bottling and selling groundwater

Residents are speaking out against a Safeway bottling plant in Merced that’s pumping groundwater from city wells to be bottled and sold. In this file photo, forklift driver Walter Fernandes is seen inside the Safeway plant in Merced.
Residents are speaking out against a Safeway bottling plant in Merced that’s pumping groundwater from city wells to be bottled and sold. In this file photo, forklift driver Walter Fernandes is seen inside the Safeway plant in Merced. Modesto Bee file

Officials in the parched Central Valley hang their hats on a few ways to save water – limiting outdoor watering and taking shorter showers – but some residents say they’re not addressing concerns about a Safeway bottling plant in Merced that’s pulling groundwater from city wells to be bottled and sold.

“If they are using a city well, then it’s the residents’ water,” said Jean Okuye, vice president of Valley Land Alliance. She first heard concerns about Safeway selling groundwater two years ago.

“I would be very concerned because it could be affecting the residents’ water directly,” she continued. “And when you turn on that tap and we don’t have any water, people will maybe wake up and think about who is taking all the water.”

The Safeway-Lucerne Foods Bottling Plant on Cooper Avenue uses Merced’s municipal wells for the water it bottles and sells in stores, city officials confirmed. However, the city would not disclose the amount of public water the facility is using each month.

“That’s not a question we can answer because it’s not public information,” said John Baptista, Merced’s water manager. Although the Safeway plant uses public wells and infrastructure to fill the water bottles, officials say they’re subject to privacy as a water customer of the city.

“They are just a water customer like any other business,” said Michael Wegley, director of water resources for the city’s public works department. “I wouldn’t say the city is concerned. To me, they are just like any other food processing company or industry.”

Wendy Gutshall, a spokeswoman for Safeway in Northern California, said water conservation is part of the company’s sustainability strategy. She declined to answer questions about how much water the company is using.

“You have asked numerous questions about our facility, some of which are proprietary,” Gutshall said in an email. “... We are working with our cleaning and food safety vendor partners to identify additional steps we can take to support the governor’s mandate (to reduce water usage).”

The Merced facility has been in operation since 1997, Gutshall said, and employs 70 people.

The Safeway plant manufactures three varieties of bottled water: purified, purified drinking with minerals, and spring water, according to Safeway’s Bottled Water Quality Report. The report details Safeway’s use of “municipally controlled wells” to process the water.

Gutshall said the Merced plant in 2014 reduced water consumption by 30 percent compared with the previous year.

“We recently put together a core team of employees from our plants in California to identify additional water conservation initiatives for our facilities that won’t compromise our strict food product safety and quality standards,” she said in the email. “As a local employer and member of the Merced community, we are proactively taking steps to reduce our water use.”

But with the record drought depleting Merced’s aquifer, some local residents are speaking out against using public water for private bottling operations.

“Perhaps watering lawns are the least of California’s worries,” said Atwater resident Jandrea-Marie Gabrielle during a recent City Council meeting. “You might think that in the midst of a drought emergency, diverting public fresh water supplies to bottle and selling them would be frowned upon.”

Though Gabrielle lives in Atwater, she said groundwater pumping affects everyone in Merced County because of its impact on the aquifer.

Okuye said her biggest worry is that the groundwater being pulled is not replaced. “This is so critical. What we are doing is destroying our whole valley by depleting our groundwater,” she said.

Merced isn’t the only area where public water is used for a water bottling business.

Nestlé Waters North America uses water from springs in the San Bernardino National Forest. The water is bottled and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.

Merced city officials said all businesses, including the Safeway bottling plant, have water meters installed to track usage. Officials said they monitor the amount of water used by the city’s residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @RamonaGiwargis.