The Thirst Is Real: Ethos Water Sourced from 'Exceptional Drought' Region of California

A cup of Starbucks coffee sits on a table in a cafe in central Hong Kong January 16, 2011. The coffee company acquired Ethos in 2005. Joel Boh/Reuters

Since 2005, celebrities including Matt Damon and Cameron Diaz have lent their well-hydrated faces to marketing campaigns supporting Starbucks' feel-good Ethos Water mission, which has raised an estimated $12.3 million to help people in developing countries have access to clean water. The company has attempted to "raise awareness" about our globe's water crisis by donating a small portion of proceeds from sales (5 cents from $1.95 water bottles) to water charity projects and hygiene education programs, particularly those aimed at helping children.

Seems there's something in the water, though. Mother Jones did some Internet irrigation and discovered that Ethos's world-saving bottled-water plant is located in Merced and sources its H2O just up north in Baxter, both California towns the United States Drought Monitor has deemed to be in "exceptional drought."

Just how exceptional? Merced residents aren't just restricted from watering their lawns (here's looking at you, Beverly Hills). An April plan from the State Water Resources Control Board mandated that the town must reduce its water use by 35 percent, according to The Fresno Bee, in an attempt to assuage the state's ongoing epic drought.

Merced natives have been increasingly expressing their disdain for the water bottling plant, owned and operated by the grocery store chain Safeway, that had been sourcing and sending out groundwater from the region for sales, reports the Merced Sun-Star. This plant bottles its own water, in addition to producing Ethos. But it's unclear how much water the company has been slurping down because the city holds that as classified information.

The Ethos water itself is sourced about two hours north of Merced, from private springs located in Baxter, California. A Starbucks spokesperson was careful to note that the private springs weren't being "used for municipal water for any communities," in an interview with Mother Jones. No word on how much of Ethos Water's overall output is bottled in California, as there is a Pennsylvania plant where the company produces bottles for east coast sales. Starbucks did not immediately return a request for comment.

The news should hit harder than a sip of a quadruple-shot Venti moccachino. But Ethos isn't the only bottled-water company facing mounting accountability for digging up groundwater in California's most arid regions. As Newsweek reported in mid-April, Nestle's gargantuan bottling operation has been extracting and selling millions of gallons of water from some of California's most barren regions—27 years after their water permit expired.

Tapping into any groundwater at this point in the state's water emergency is troubling, especially because water companies located in California usually aren't required to pay for groundwater usage. According to the State Water Resources Control Board, an annual notice of groundwater usage must be filed only if it exceeds 25-acre feet—enough water to fill over 12 Olympic swimming pools' worth without needing a permit.

Advocates insist that if bottled water companies continue sourcing water from these parched regions, it will significantly impact farms and communities. It looks as though Starbucks is re-focusing Ethos' ethos following the report, though: a company spokesperson said in an interview with Newsweek that the company is "now looking at alternative sourcing solutions for Ethos Water outside of the state [of California]."

They have not announced where exactly they're looking for those alternatives, but perhaps Ethos took a cue from state native Joan Didion, who wrote in her 1979 essay "Holy Water" that "the apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion is real live here in only the most temporary way."