McCLOUD, Calif. -- In the days of ''Mother McCloud," as townsfolk fondly called the now-defunct McCloud Lumber Co., there were jobs for every able-bodied denizen of this alpine community at the foot of snow-capped Mount Shasta. The town was bustling, as long as the saw mills kept roaring.
Two years ago, however, the town's last wood mill closed, and townsfolk began a desperate search for new jobs and industry.
It wasn't long before civic leaders proposed tapping into the snow-fed springs gurgling out of the same forests of towering pines and firs that for generations had sustained the small, unincorporated town 50 miles south of the Oregon border.
But when the McCloud Community Services District struck a water deal with
In fall 2003, Nestle agreed to buy a half-billion gallons of the town's spring water each year for the next 50 years, with an option to extend the deal 50 more years. In return, the Greenwich, Conn.-based Nestle subsidiary would pay McCloud as much as $450,000 annually -- a mere drop in the bucket in a $9 billion bottled-water industry.
The old lumber mill would be replaced with a million-square-foot bottling plant that would dwarf anything else in town -- big enough to swallow each of McCloud's 571 houses.
For many in town, the deal provides a future. Nestle says it will create as many as 240 jobs, perhaps more. In its first six years, the company estimates it will pump $25.5 million into the local economy.
Critics, however, accused the district -- supervised by an elected five-member board that oversees not only water, but garbage collection, snow plowing, parks, and the library -- of rushing into a bad deal, of being unconcerned about potentially depleting the town's springs and aquifers, and of ceding the community's future to an international conglomerate.
In March, a Siskiyou County judge sided with opponents, agreeing that the deal violated state law because the requisite environmental studies weren't completed before the agreement was signed. In effect, the judge set aside the contract, and scheduled a hearing next month to determine whether the deal will survive. Meanwhile, a draft of the environmental study, already underway, is expected to be released later this summer.
''I don't intend to let this thing come here," said Richard McFarland, who moved to McCloud two decades ago and owns a reclaimed-lumber business. ''I think we're in a very good position to tell them they need to go elsewhere."
McFarland and others worry the deal would give Nestle unfettered access to the town's water supply, not only to McCloud's three springs, but to the delicate aquifers that lie beneath the volcanic soil. Boring into lava tubes, he and others say, could disrupt the flow of water and permanently undermine the environment.
Opponents, who say the town's future lies in cottage industry and tourism, also fret about the prospect of 300 bottling trucks burdening nearby roads. Nestle says truck traffic would be routed along the town's periphery, not through its center.
''We all want the same thing," said Steve Richardson, a former logger whose family has roots in the area since the 1860s. ''Nobody wants the town to change. But each side has a perspective that is skewed by their own ideas about what this town is.
''For people who've been here all their life, McCloud is now a ghost town, while the people who moved here more recently see it as this quaint little town straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting," said Richardson, who was born in McCloud 49 years ago, moved with his family to Southern California as a child, and returned to work in the woods here when he was 23.
Though he opposes the water deal, Richardson says he understands why many others so desperately want it. ''They remember the hustle and bustle of the old days, and they want to bring it back," he said.
When timber was king, a steady stream of logging trucks rumbled through town. Nearly everyone worked for ''Mother McCloud," until the company sold the town four decades ago.
A procession of different owners kept the mill running, but jobs dwindled as environmentalists used lawsuits to help shutter forests across the Northwest and Northern California.
As logging declined, so did the town's fortunes.
A sign outside town puts the population at 1,600, but fewer than 1,300 people remain. There was recent talk of closing the high school, home to the once-mighty Loggers, because enrollment was down to a dozen students.
''We need jobs to keep this community healthy," said Ron Berryman, 60, a former employee of ''Mother McCloud" who is now a timber-harvest consultant. ''The community isn't healthy when you don't have kids running around."
Berryman scoffs at suggestions that the McCloud bottling plant, which would be the third located in the shadows of Mount Shasta, would be bad for the environment.
''The only cleaner industry than bottled water is bottled air," he said.
Darlene Mathis, who recently bought the old Mercantile Building in the center of town and is renovating it into tourist-friendly shops, is particularly concerned about an exclusivity clause that would, in effect, give Nestle veto power over what kinds of businesses could open in town. A microbrewery, for example, would need Nestle's permission before it could tap into the town's water.
''There's always going to be some opposition to this kind of project," said David Palais, a geologist brought in by Nestle to oversee the McCloud project. ''But I would characterize the opposition as being not completely informed, and perhaps not willing to be completely informed. They're more interested in using scare tactics."
Once the legal hurdles have been satisfied, the bottling plant could open in about a year, he said.
The water would be marketed under the company's Arrowhead label, and about a dozen regional brands of bottled water Nestle sells, including Perrier, Pellegrino, and Poland Spring.
Nestle has already invested millions of dollars into building a facility in McCloud, and is unlikely to abandon those plans, Palais said.
''People who worked at the old mill want to stay in town, in the town they grew up in," Palais said. ''I think everybody wants to see this town survive."