From The Desert Sun:
Miles from the nearest paved road in the San Bernardino National Forest, two sounds fill a rocky canyon: a babbling stream and the hissing of water flowing through a stainless steel pipe.
From wells that tap into springs high on the mountainside, water gushes down through the pipe to a roadside tank. From there, it is transferred to tanker trucks, hauled to a bottling plant and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.
“Nestle’s permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988”
In an investigation of the industry’s water footprint in the San Bernardino National Forest and other parts of California, The Desert Sun found that:
- No state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by all of the bottled water plants in California, or monitoring the effects on water supplies and ecosystems statewide. The California Department of Public Health regulates 108 bottled water plants in the state, collecting information on water quality and the sources tapped. But the agency says it does not require companies to report how much water they use.
- That information, when collected piecemeal by state or local agencies, often isn’t easily accessible to the public. In some cases, the amounts of water used are considered confidential and not publicly released.
- Even as Nestle Waters has been submitting required reports on its water use, the Forest Service has not been closely tracking the amounts of water leaving the San Bernardino National Forest and has not assessed the impacts on the environment.
- While the Forest Service has allowed Nestle to keep using an expired permit for nearly three decades, the agency has cracked down on other water users in the national forest. Several years ago, for instance, dozens of cabin owners were required to stop drawing water from a creek when their permits came up for renewal. Nestle has faced no such restrictions.
- Only this year, after a group of critics raised concerns in letters and after The Desert Sun inquired about the expired permit, did Forest Service officials announce plans to take up the issue and carry out an environmental analysis.
A growing debate over Nestle’s use of water from the San Bernardino National Forest parallels other arguments in places from the San Gorgonio Pass to Mount Shasta. And those debates have turned more contentious as a fourth year of drought weighs on California’s depleted water supplies.
Statewide, the bottled water industry accounts for a small fraction of overall water use. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that roughly 1 percent of the water used in the state goes to industrial users, with bottling plants being a small portion of that. Pumping from wells can pull down groundwater levels, and drawing water from springs can reduce the amounts flowing in streams.
Bottled water companies in California are typically subject to environmental reviews only when a permit for a new project triggers a formal study. Otherwise, the impacts of bottling plants on creeks and aquifers often aren’t scrutinized by government agencies.
In the San Bernardino National Forest, Nestle insists its bottling of spring water isn’t causing any harm. Water from Arrowhead Springs has been tapped and sold for more than a century. The company says it is complying with all the requirements of its expired permit in the national forest and has been informed by the Forest Service that it can keep operating lawfully until a new permit is eventually issued. The company also says that at all of the springs where it draws water, it monitors the environment and manages its water use to ensure “long-term sustainability.”