For decades, water was siphoned from springs in the San Bernardino Mountains and piped down to be bottled and sold as 100% Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water. After years of fighting over bottled water operations in the San Bernardino National Forest, California water regulators ruled Tuesday that the company must stop drawing millions of gallons from its pipes.
The State Water Control Board voted unanimously to order BlueTriton Brands to “cease and desist” from withdrawing much of the water it pumps into tunnels and boreholes located in the mountains near San Bernardino.
Environmentalists, who have campaigned for years against the bottling of forest water, welcomed the decision.
“We are extremely pleased that this illegal withdrawal of public water from public lands is finally coming to an end,” said Michael O’Heaney, executive director of the nonprofit Story of Stuff Project.
Council members passed the ordinance after agency staff determined the company had diverted far more water than it was entitled to.
Controversy erupted after a 2015 investigation by the Desert Sun revealed that the U.S. Forest Service allowed Nestlé to continue siphoning water from the national forest using a permit that listed 1988 as the expiration date.
The Forest Service then began a review of Nestlé’s permit and in 2018 granted a new permit for up to five years. Revelations that Nestlé was dumping water from the national forest also led to several complaints to California regulators questioning the company’s rights to the water, leading to a state investigation.
BlueTriton Brands took over Nestlé’s bottled water business in 2021. The company’s lawyers argued at the hearing that the board’s process was fraught with pitfalls and that they were entitled to continue to use water.
“The proposed ordinance is inconsistent with existing rights,” said Robert Donlan, an attorney for the company. “The board simply does not have the authority to ignore the law.”
But the council disagreed and said the ordinance followed state law.
“The reality is you’re seeing the interception of what would otherwise be naturally flowing water,” said board Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel. “And we need to make sure we have a water rights system that we can all have confidence in.”
Local environmentalists have argued that the company’s pipeline removes valuable water that would otherwise flow into Strawberry Creek and nourish the ecosystem. The 4-inch steel pipe system collects water flowing by gravity from various sites on the steep mountainside above the creek.
“It’s crazy. They sucked it and now the fish can’t even live in it,” said Amanda Frye, an activist who campaigned for years against bottling the water. Frye, who lives in Redlands, spent long hours combing through historical records to research the matter and repeatedly told the board that the company did not have valid water rights.
Records show about 143 acre-feet (46.5 million gallons) passed through the company’s pipe system in 2021, filling a roadside reservoir where trucks collected the water and transported it to a bottling plant.
State officials ordered the company to stop drawing water for bottling in most of its water tunnels and boreholes, but the order does not cover three boreholes that capture the water.
A spokesperson for BlueTriton Brands said in an email that the company and its predecessors “have been collecting water from Arrowhead Springs in Strawberry Canyon in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner for over 125 years.”
BlueTriton, based in Stamford, Conn., took over operations when Nestlé Waters North America was acquired by private equity firm One Rock Capital Partners and investment firm Metropoulos & Co.
The board’s order “marks a radical departure from express statutory limitations” and legal precedent regarding the agency’s authority to authorize water rights, the company said.
BlueTriton said the decision “creates uncertainty over water rights” and negatively affects other water users who rely on groundwater. The company said it would “vigorously defend our water rights through the available legal process.”
The State Water Board ordered BlueTriton to comply with the order by November 1. The company also has 30 days to appeal to the Office.
The springs are the original source of Arrowhead brand bottled water, named after a natural arrowhead-shaped rock formation on the mountainside.
The company said Arrowhead bottled water comes from 11 sources across California, as well as one source in Colorado and another in British Columbia. The spring north of San Bernardino is the only one located in a national forest.
Although the state order calls for an end to “unauthorized diversions” of water, it does not prevent BlueTriton from continuing to divert water into the same pipeline under other rights on hotel property of long-vacant Arrowhead Springs, which is owned by the San Manuel Band. mission Indians.
Rachel Doughty, attorney for the Story of Stuff project, said the involvement of Loe and other local people over the past several years was instrumental in the board’s decision. She said the findings of the state’s investigation were clear.
“They had no rights,” Doughty said. “You can’t take water and have no consequences just because you’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Lisa Belenky, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that by adopting the order, the state has taken “a crucial first step toward protecting this stream and the headwaters of Strawberry Canyon, as well as the fish, of the wildlife and riparian vegetation that depend on it. waters.”
Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service biologist who called for the pipeline to be shut down, said he was pleased with the decision.
“Returning water to creeks and streams will allow them and the surrounding habitat to recover, which will benefit all plants and wildlife,” Loe said.
Los Angeles Times