“We had water up to our knees and the stream could turn two mills,” said Pierre Grodecoeur, 69, pointing to the flow outside the house where he was born at Les Moulins Blancs.
The mills are long gone, said Grodecoeur, and nowadays the stream bed is often dry.
His village in Auvergne is just down the road from the imposing Volvic bottling plant owned by French food and drink giant Danone.
Since 2014, the government has allowed Danone to bottle up to 2.8 million cubic meters per year, or 2.8 billion one-liter bottles.
This translates into an extraction of nearly 89 liters per second from the water table at Volvic, compared to just 15.6 liters when bottling operations began in 1965.
But at the nearby Saint-Genest-l’Enfant hatchery, a listed monument dating from the 17th century where the Volvic spring emerges naturally, there are now a few months where the water is no longer flowing at all.
The owner, Edouard de Feligonde, had to close the fishery a few years ago after duckweed formed slippery green films on ponds that had become stagnant for lack of current.
“Danone destroys a historic monument so that it can send its pieces of plastic to the other side of the world,” said Feligonde, who is leading a legal battle against the multinational with the lawyer and former Minister of the Environment Corinne Lepage .
Robert Durand, a geologist, told AFP that the average flow rate at the Volvic spring had fallen to 50 liters per second, well below the 470 liters per second measured in 1927.
Water shortages are already having an impact on the region’s biodiversity by reducing the natural humidity of the forested hills.
“This can be described as the start of desertification,” said Christian Amblard, an expert at the CNRS research institute in Clermont-Ferrand, the historic capital of Auvergne.
He cited the decline of black alders and siskin songbirds that nest there, as well as ash trees and golden orioles. “Only the human hand and Volvic are responsible,” he said.
Laurent Campos-Hugueney, a farmer and member of the Water is a Public Good collective, said the streams around Volvic are no longer flowing strongly enough to support irrigation. “There have been no plant or market gardening operations in the region for several years,” he said.
But Jerome Gros, manager of the Volvic bottling site, disputed the claim that its operations were sucking up the waterbed and said Danone was investing heavily in source protection.
“We saved 380 million liters between 2017 and 2020 even though sales remained stable,” Gros told AFP.
In 2014, for example, Volvic had to pump two liters to fill a one-liter bottle, the excess being used for sterilization and rinsing of equipment.
“Today we are down to 1.4 liters for every liter bottled,” he said.
‘Shooting yourself in the foot’
Critics are not convinced, noting that Volvic pumps water up to 100 meters deep and that the depletion of the rivers cannot be attributed to the weather as rainfall has remained stable in recent years.
“It’s like emptying a tub from the bottom,” said François-Dominique de Larouzière, a geologist and member of the local environmental conservation group Preva.
Authorities have also allowed Volvic to spread its volume allocation year round, meaning it can pump more in the summer when demand increases, leaving everyone dry and dry.
Senior government official for the region, Philippe Chopin, told a parliamentary committee in April that “environmental conditions, especially drought, have caused a drop in the aquifer that we don’t think can be blamed” on extractions by Volvic.
His claims were rejected by many in Volvic, where the issuance of building permits was suspended last August due to the risk of a shortage of potable water – although the mayor denied any evidence that Volvic’s operations were the cause. cause.
“How can you tell people that they can’t water three tomato plants in the middle of summer when they see full trucks leaving this factory?” »Said De Larouzière.
“Danone shoots himself in the foot, but when the tap stops working, it will be painful. “