By Mark Gutglueck
Of tremendous moment in the San Bernardino Mountains is whether Governor Jerry Brown’s April 1 executive order mandating that cities, towns, counties, agencies and individuals across the state reduce water consumption by a minimum of 25 percent will be applied to Nestlé Water of North America, the parent company of Arrowhead Water, the bottler of Arrowhead Spring water.
Arrowhead Water’s precise consumption of water has, remarkably, never been publicly disclosed. Nestlé of North America, a corporate subsidiary of the Swiss-owned Nestlé Corporation, had permits with the United States Forest Service allowing it to extract water from a significant spring in the San Bernardino Mountains. One of those permits expired 28 years ago and the other expired 21 years ago, but the company continues to pay the miniscule fees associated with those permits and utilizes for commercial purposes water thousands of times in excess of that used by local domestic users who even before Brown’s executive order had their access to mountain water cut off.
Originally conceived of in the late 1800s, Lake Arrowhead came about as a consequence of the construction of Lake Arrowhead Dam, work on which began at end of 1904. Work was suspended on that effort because of litigation over the project’s diversion of water away from the headwaters of the Mojave River on the north side of the Mountain. After an extended delay, construction of the dam was completed in 1922 by the Arrowhead Lake Company, a Los Angeles syndicate.
Well before that, in 1906, in Strawberry Canyon, at a level in the San Bernardino Mountains below the lake, pipes were used to tap into the springs fed by Strawberry Creek. The flow from those pipes became a reliable drinking water supply. That was one year before the San Bernardino National Forest was created by an act of Congress. In time, the original pipes at Strawberry Springs were enlarged and expanded and the Arrowhead Puritas Water Bottling Company built its company, based on the quality of that spring water.
Nestlé inherited from Arrowhead Puritas the water pumping permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service to the Strawberry Canyon spring water, when it purchased that company. But one of those permits elapsed in 1988 and the last one expired in 1994. Nevertheless, Nestlé has continued to pay the $524 annual fee attached to those permits, and continued to extract water unabated from Strawberry Springs, conveying the water away in a stainless steel pipeline.
There is no limitation imposed on Nestlé’s pumping. Nor has there ever been an effort to quantify how much water, precisely, Nestlé is using.
A multinational food and beverage company headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, Nestlé is the largest food company in the world measured by revenues. According to its 2014 report to its stockholders, bottled water accounts for seven percent of the company’s revenue. Most of that is from the Arrowhead brand.
Neither the U.S. Forest Service, nor the state of California, nor the county of San Bernardino nor any local water agency has required that the water being drawn from Strawberry Springs be measured. In this regard, Nestlé appears to be getting no special treatment when it comes to water bottlers, since none of the state of California’s 108 water bottling plants is required to report how much water is being used in their operations. The only state regulations at such plants pertain to purity, content, turbidity and bacterial measurements.
Still, Nestlé/Arrowhead does appear to be getting favorable treatment in one other regard. Beginning in 2006, the Forest Service began to limit the water usage of hundreds of residents in the San Bernardino Mountains, reevaluating the permits those residents had for the use of creek, spring and well water. Many, if not all of those residents had long established water rights. Nevertheless, the cabin owners were told by the Forest Service that they would no longer be allowed to draw water from mountain creeks. They would instead need to exclusively use wells or, in the case where they had no wells, build tanks and truck in water. In many cases the cabin owners had documentation showing water rights extending back for more than eight decades. That softened no soap with the U.S. Forest Service, which threatened legal action if the taking of water from the creeks did not cease, and the impacted cabin owners were required to make immediate investments of upwards of $5,000 apiece and continue with the ongoing expense of purchasing outside water to maintain the liveability of their domiciles.
The Forest Service has not offered its rationale for excluding Nestlé/Arrowhead from its permit reevaluation process, even though the Arrowhead water bottling entails the drawing of, based upon internal Nestlé corporate documents, at least 705 million gallons of water from Strawberry Spring annually, which translates into more water in two weeks than the cracked-down upon cabin owners all over the mountains were utilizing in a whole year. Estimates by hydrologists not affiliated with Nestlé put the company’s water consumption significantly beyond the 705 million gallon mark.
It may be that the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency, is reluctant to, or under orders not to, confront an international company operating in the United States and thereby create some order of international incident and invite retaliation against American companies operating overseas.
But with California now caught in what scientists say is the most severe draught the state has suffered in 1,200 years and the governor’s executive order extending to every part of California, it remains to be seen whether Nestlé can continue to defy the rules and regulations all others in the state must abide by.
By Mark Gutglueck