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Mining Mount Shasta

I am standing at the base of Mount Shasta on a late summer day as rivulets of snowmelt bleed out of rock and fill up a small pool whose waters will join other pools and form the river that more than any other river created California. I am joined by Buddhists and mystics and seekers of Mount Shasta's lizard people, clock people, spaceship people and the myth of Lemuria, the lost continent buried beneath the Pacific Ocean.

As the legend goes, one of the earth's cataclysms struck and left only a single refuge, Mount Shasta. For centuries, the ancient Lemurians, a people 7 feet tall, lived in in a splendid golden city inside the mountain. Today's pilgrims are drawn by the mountain whose vortical pull and the strange flying saucer cloud that hovers over the top of the crater. It is known as a lenticular cloud and Mount Shasta is one of the few places in the world where it can be found in such dramatic form. What makes this cloud a phenomenon is a stream of air that condenses one edge and evaporates the other edge and travels at a speed of 50-100 miles an hour. Yet the cloud itself doesn't move. Gravity and buoyancy fight to a draw. The cloud absorbs sunrise and sunset projecting such spectacular glows that it's no wonder people asscribe otherworldliness to Mount Shasta.

Those who abandoned their former lives and moved here for good come to the mountain's base each day and reverently dip their jugs into some of the last pure water left in the West. I climb to a ledge above the pond and sink my cupped hands into the ice cold snowmelt and take a sip and another delicious sip. The man in a brown gown standing next to me calls it “raw water” and explains that it takes a half-century for snow on the shoulders of Mount Shasta to filter down through the volcanic aquifer and bleed out the base. If that is true I'm drinking water nearly as old as I am or far older if you consider the Pacific whose moisture condensed into the storm that dropped the snow.

Where water is pure, the industrial water bottlers with global reach aren't far behind. Nestle, Coca-Cola and Danone have made friends in the three little towns that form a half circle around the mountain. They've made enemies too. Big-city exiles who have moved to the communities of Weed, McCloud and Mount Shasta — the imported environmentalists — are fighting to prevent the bottlers from mining the pristine water. The Wintu nation — what's left of it anyway — fights beside them. Two dozen natural springs flow where the pine, fir, aak and dogwood make a forest. Already one spring has been tapped by Crystal Geyser which is part owned by Otsuka, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant. A million gallons a day are put into plastic bottles at a plant in Weed and shipped out across the planet. Crystal Geyser is now eyeing a second spring and a Sacramento developer who has never bottled water before is scoping out a third.

Environmentalists who blocked Nestle's water grab are now headed to court again to stop Crystal Geyser. The cause polarizes mountain people. For more than a century their towns were company towns devoted to the wholesale harvesting of forest trees. The old lumber barons built the community's pitched roof houses and high school. They built the swimming pool and the theater. When Abner Weed gave you a job it was considered a job for life. Then the sawmills shuttered and the economy withered. The County of Siskiyou and the city of Weed thought themselves improvident for not acting on the one exportable natural resource still ripe for the taking. Out-of-town businessmen blew in their ears. Water is a commodity. Water is a mutual fund. Water is jobs. But in the case of the one bottling plant up and running in Weed, Crystal Geyser pays not a dime to the city or the county for the water. The locals looking for the state government to intervene will be disappointed.

Crystal Geyser Plant

What is or is not a safe yield of the aquifer is not a question that California water engineers apply to Mount Shasta. By reckoning of the new groundwater law, Mount Shasta may be the most profuse water source in all the far West, but it does not qualify in the eyes of the state as a defined groundwater basin. Its springs come from nowhere and everywhere. In other California locales, the extraction and sale of bottled water would require a modicum of government oversight and even constraint. The constraint might entail measuring the water table every so often or placing a ceiling on exports or setting a minimum flow in the riverbed to sustain fish and wildlife. But here at the headwaters, bottlers need only declare themselves a “mutual water company” to occupy a jurisdictional no man's land where the sole watchdog — the state Public Utilities Commission — is no watchdog at all.

For the Wintu, the theft of their mountainous snowmelt began not with international water bottlers but with the raising of Shasta Dam in 1945. At a town park where the river's headwaters gush forth many miles above the damn, several Wintu Indians gather for a rally. “Water is life,” one sign reads. Their official statement mixes legend and legal brief: “The Winnemum Wintu were born from this pristine water of Mount Shasta and regard this water as a sacred relative, a living being that is being exploited, desecrated and polluted when it is caught in a plastic bottle and commoditized.” Chief Caleen Sisk, a regal woman whose long braid of black hair spills from her tribal skullcap, speaks of another theft: Governor Brown's Twin Tunnels and legislation in Congress — introduced on behalf of the Westlands Water District — to raise Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. “We have lived on the banks of the McCloud River for thousands of years and our culture is centered on the protection and careful sustainable use of its salmon,” she says. “These projects would only push the remaining salmon runs toward extinction and inundate our ancestral and sacred homeland.”

(From ‘The Dreamt Land,’ by Mark Arax)

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Update: Crystal Geyser Sells Scrapped Bottling Facility In Siskiyou County

March, 2022 — Local activists are celebrating the sale of an old bottling facility in Siskiyou County, signaling the end of a decade-long fight over water rights in Northern California. Now the activists are lobbying for stricter environmental standards. 

One Comment

  1. izzy August 9, 2022

    There is a perverse irony in putting some of “the last pure water” into small plastic bottles for distribution.
    Add a little sunlight, and soon the stuff is no longer fit to drink. And the plastic, now found under bushes everywhere, degrades into another world-eroding calamity.

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