To many, it seems barely credible that water melting in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming could find its way to a bottling plant in the hottest city in the Northern Hemisphere, to be sold in hotels and gas stations all over the western U.S. At a time of climate change and increasing concern over access to our most precious resource, to many others it seems obscene.

The city of Phoenix, Arizona receives less than eight inches of rainfall per year. Summer temperatures now routinely reach 105°F (40°C). The Salt River, whose source is in the White Mountains to the east, ceases to flow beyond a diversion dam in the city, yet demand is only partially satisfied. For the remainder, Phoenicians depend on a supply pumped 300 miles uphill from the Colorado River – via the Central Arizona Project.

However, the Colorado’s already over-allocated flows have decreased over 16 years of drought in the basin, driven largely by significant depletion of winter snowpack in the upper reaches. The level of Lake Mead – the reservoir that feeds Las Vegas – reached an all-time low last week, increasing the odds of a federal shortage declaration by 2018. Such an eventuality would trigger cutbacks to the allocations of water to Phoenix and the rest of Arizona.

Water, in other words, is a big issue in central and southern Arizona – as in much of the south-western U.S. The rapid growth of cities like Phoenix has only been possible because of the development of vast, federally-funded hydraulic projects that are now threatened by climate change and reduced catchment run-off. Competition between proponents of municipal, industrial and environmental uses of water is intensifying.

Enter global food giant Nestlé. On Friday, Phoenix Water Services Department officials announced that the firm plans to open a  huge water-bottling plant in the city. Bearing the company’s ‘Pure Life’ brand, this will not be ‘mineral water’ from a spring, but drawn from the Phoenix’s own mains water supply. They estimate that 264 million bottles will be treated and sold in the first year – more than enough to supply 200 Phoenix households.

Nestlé has recently been embroiled in a number of disputes around access to water for bottling, notably in California, which itself is experiencing an unprecedented drought, and Oregon. As with the latter, company spokespersons and the authorities in Phoenix have hastened to put forward the usual accompanying discourses around jobs and economic contribution.

Where this example differs, however, is in respect to the point of extraction and the different interests implicated by the activity. Water piped from the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest in California represents a threat to the ecological and socio-cultural values attached by local people to land in which they share a sense of ownership and responsibility. That water is, in a sense, significant to a stage in the ‘hydro-social cycle’ at which the natural first intersects with the social and the economic.

The water that flows in the pipes beneath Phoenix, however, has already been appropriated, marketised, and allocated. It’s transient presence is the result of an entire history of violence, political and legal contestation, economic power and the development of legal-institutional structures, out of which materialised the Roosevelt Dam, the Salt River Project, the Central Arizona Project, the desert cities of Phoenix and Tucson, and the lives of millions of Arizonans.

The presence of water in such abundance in that scorched valley, moreover, embodies an absence elsewhere. It is the manifestation of an indigenous people coerced into the surrender of their traditional rights of access to the waters of the Gila, Salt and Colorado Rivers in exchange for economic exploitation. Meanwhile, those very waters, having been sold once, are to be sold again for profit – this time as a recycled, purified version of themselves, encased conveniently in blue polyethylene. For officials in Phoenix to argue that the city’s tap-water supply is secure for decades is to ignore the question of at whose expense that security is obtained.

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