Nestlé, Phoenix water, and the bicycle shed problem

tl;dr The Phoenix kerfuffle over a Nestlé bottled water plant is an example of people distracted by a facile but meaningless caricature of the problem they think they care about.

longer: When University of New Mexico Water Resources Program graduate student Sara Gerlitz* was looking at Arizona water management over the last year, she zeroed in pretty quickly on the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District’s “2015 Plan of Operation“. If you’re interested in the long term sustainability of the greater Phoenix area’s water supplies, the plan and the processes it describes are super important.

The plan lays out how central Arizona water managers will meet their legal obligations to provide a 100-year assured supply of water to growing parts of Central Arizona in the context of groundwater pumping regulations and available supplies of imported Colorado River water. This is big deal stuff, central to Arizona’s sustainability. The back-and-forth over the details – the reasonableness of the assumptions that went into it, the risks if the estimates are wrong – makes for important reading if you’re interested in the deep and important details of how Arizona plans for its water future. But to the people of greater Phoenix, this seems to have not been a very interesting process at all. When the Arizona Department of Water Resources held a legally required public hearing on the plan March 30, 2015, not a single member of the public showed up to testify. Zero.

Irrigated alfalfa on the east side of the Phoenix metro area, February 2015

Irrigated alfalfa on the east side of the Phoenix metro area, February 2015

It is interesting to compare that lack of public attention with the current public kerfuffle over Nestlé’s plans to build a new water bottling plant in Phoenix. Some perspective: the CAGRD’s new plan of operation contemplates the need for roughly 50,000 acre feet of water per year by the mid-2030s. In comparison, the Nestlé plant will use about 100 acre feet of water per year. The CAGRD process was making important policy decisions about a supply of water 500 times larger than the Nestlé plant. No members of the general public showed up to the CAGRD process, while 37,000 people by Friday had signed an on line petition against the Nestlé plant.

Back in my errant youth, when I worked as a volunteer documentation writer for the big free software GNOME project, I became intimately familiar with what we called “bicycle shed” discussions, a shorthand drawn from the work of 1950s management scholar C. Northcote Parkinson. Here’s a nice short explanation:

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far….

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

Sometimes also called “Parkinson’s law of triviality“, it’s popular among geeks and mostly applied to software development discussions. But it generalizes, a nice shorthand for why people attach to simple things they think they can understand and act on, while ignoring the more important but vast and complex. I get why bicycle shed discussions are inevitable. But that doesn’t mean they are not a problem.

Here’s why, in the case of Phoenix and Nestlé.

Those 37,000 petition signatures suggest a bunch of people who care a lot about the sustainability of Phoenix’s water supply. That’s great! But they’ve attached that wagon of caring to the wrong horse. Central Arizona can do a great job of managing the sort of long term water sustainability problems sketched out in the CAGRD process (and in a bunch of others policy processes now underway), and it will have plenty of water for a Nestlé plant and lots of other things future Phoenicians (?) might want to do.

Or it could do a terrible job at those big picture processes, in which case rejecting the Nestlé plant won’t matter a hill of beans.

But a whole bunch of people have been left with an entirely different perception – that caring for Phoenix’s water sustainability future means killing that Nestlé plant.

This is a big problem for the pursuit of water sustainability in Phoenix, because the current community water management has done some important things to move it down the path toward sustainability (water use declining, aquifer rising, innovative conjunctive groundwater management institutional arrangements, etc.). If the protesters don’t get their way on the Nestlé plant, they’re gonna think Phoenix doesn’t care about water supply sustainability. And that would be completely wrong, and Phoenix water management would lose an important set of allies in the hard work yet to come in ensuring the sustainability of its water supply.

I don’t blame the mass of people signing the Nestlé petition here. Bicycle shed problems are inevitable because people care. Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done. The important thing is for the leadership of the anti-Nestlé crowd to demonstrate some seriousness about Arizona’s real water supply sustainability challenges, leading this mass of people now assembled into a more meaningful discussion of water supply sustainability, and not waste all of our time arguing over a bottled water plant.

* CAGRD governance issues were just a piece of Sara’s masters degree project, which primarily focused on the use of remote sensing tools to help water managers get a handle on agricultural water use – something that will be critical for Arizona’s long term water supply sustainability. It was a great project – she just finished, it’s not on line yet, but will soon be posted here.


  1. Effin’ awesome analysis.

    An alternative explanation is that they trust Government more than they trust capitalist interests (as far as those things are distinct).

  2. Interesting that you would lump together anti- Nestle folks as having one common complaint. Personally, I see bottled water industry as a long term environmental and PR problem: plastic waste, consumers “trust” of bottled water as being better than potable water even though regulations are different and less strict. Yes, redirected volume is insignificant but at higher cost to consumers and environment with plastic pollution.

  3. Victor – I appreciate that there are a range of concerns about bottled water, but the petition that has drawn 37,000 signatures, and to which I am reacting, only raises one complaint, the question of water use in a desert city.

  4. Appreciate this analysis, John. It’s been interesting to see the Nestle and fracking issues play out here in California during the drought too. I think an additional layer has to do with a more symbolic, rather than concrete, sense of the highest use of water in arid climates. If you look at quantity, the water used for bottling or fracking is certainly relatively low. But on a deeper psychological level I feel many of us are just questioning where the resource goes and what it “should” be used for, and in that case the numbers don’t mean much.

  5. Faith –

    That’s an excellent point, I hadn’t thought through that part carefully enough. Can you see a path forward that recognizes the element you’re raising – a sense of highest use of water in arid climates – but also brings in a broader and more robust discussion about *all* the uses of water that are implicated by these various policy processes – alfalfa, tract homes, computer chips, water bottling?

  6. For me, just recognizing that our feelings about water run much deeper than numbers can reveal is an important piece of the puzzle — not sure what will ultimately emerge from engaging in that process. I often see a frustration at a broad level that people don’t care enough about water, but when I’m out and about, I get such a different sense — people care *a lot*. Maybe just not in the ways that we want or expect. I view the concern over things like bottled water as an entry point to a conversation with 37K people who care. The how that you are asking about seems different for each of us to some degree, but I do think a “yes, and” approach is helpful.

  7. As Faith pointed out, per the discussion I had with you on the phone the other day, and as I stated in an interview with KTAR today, water bottling plants in the desert is all about the philosophical argument. Not to mention the philosophical argument surrounding a company whose chair has said “water is not a fundamental human right,” slavery in their supply chain recently, child labor litigation, sucking aquifers dry in many places and all the way back to children dying of malnutrition from their infant formula.

    As many companies have strong sustainability plans in place (many of whom I’ve worked with) lumping all manufacturing into the same category doesn’t work. It really comes down to “what is the best use for our most precious finite resource” in my humble opinion.

    Though I’m certainly not a water expert, I can look at the amount of crude oil needed to make all of those plastic bottles and know it’s not good for our planet. I can also look at the marketing spin being churned out by this multi-billion dollar industry and know that it’s bullshit.

    As someone who has been working on environmental & sustainability issues in Arizona for the nearly 18 years I’ve been here, I am thrilled to see so many people interested in this topic. Yes, it’s a complex issue. Yes, many people don’t understand the inner workings of politics and policies. Yes, people will get caught up in the surface issue versus the depth of issues. But in my opinion that doesn’t warrant chiding people for not understanding the complexities or opening the door to opportunity for further discussions.

    My son just graduated high school. It seems like he was just a toddler. 100 years is a blip, so I’m really unsure as to why everyone is gung-ho about this magic number of years for our water supply. This is the desert. We can’t change that. But we certainly can and should determine right now what the best use of our liquid gold is going to be, and make sure we’re thinking about several generations down the road while doing it.

  8. The funny thing about private companies is…that they are only concerned about expenses and profits. With profits being the driving factor. Case in point, Almond growers in CA. Shifting to growing almonds is a profit driven motive. No ifs, no buts. It did not matter that water was part of the equation. It has been noted that 10% of Ag water goes directly towards growing this crop and that it uses more water than what Met L.A. uses in 3 yrs Should this be an issue that would fit into a sustainability equation? Mind you, as you’ve stated in this topic: It is just a drop in the bucket and that it only benefits Ag as most of the crop is exported. Bottled water, is an oxymoron.

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