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 Waters North America holds a longstanding right to use this water from the national forest near San Bernardino. But the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t been keeping an eye on whether the taking of water is harming Strawberry Creek and the wildlife that depends on it. In fact, Nestle’s permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988. It hasn’t been reviewed since, and the Forest Service hasn’t examined the ecological effects of drawing tens of millions of gallons each year from the springs.
Even with California deep in drought, the federal agency hasn’t assessed the impacts of the bottled water business on springs and streams in two watersheds that sustain sensitive habitats in the national forest. The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues, and of a regulatory system in California that allows the bottled water industry to operate with little independent tracking of the potential toll on the environment.
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.”
A water pipeline runs alongside Strawberry Creek in
A water pipeline runs alongside Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. The pipe carries water from Arrowhead Springs to be bottled by Nestle.
(Photo: Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)
The Forest Service and Nestle have had a cooperative relationship over the years. In 2003, the Old Fire swept through the area and destroyed portions of Nestle’s pipeline. A month later, deadly floods and mudslides thundered down from the mountains. As Nestle workers rebuilt the pipeline on the mountainside, Forest Service officials oversaw the work. But the agency didn’t require a new permit at the time, and in the years since hasn’t examined whether draining away spring water poses problems for the creek and the forest.
Two former Forest Service employees interviewed by The Desert Sun say they think it’s wrong that the agency for decades hasn’t studied the impacts on the national forest. During the drought, they say, there is now an urgent need to protect the water sources on public lands and reexamine Nestle’s bottling operation.
“They’re taking way too much water. That water’s hugely important,” said Steve Loe, a biologist who retired from the Forest Service in 2007. “Without water, you don’t have wildlife, you don’t have vegetation.”
Standing on a roadside several miles from the springs, Loe motioned to the peaks in the distance, and to the steep mountainside where a natural rock formation shaped like an arrowhead marks the location of Arrowhead Springs. Beneath that arrowhead, hot springs bubble from the ground at a long-closed hotel that once attracted celebrities in the 1940s. In nearby Strawberry Canyon, cold springs gush from the mountain and into the pipes for bottling.
“When you take water from the springs that are the source of those waters, you dry up these canyons,” Loe said. “And they’re the most important habitats that we have.”
An avid hiker and outdoorsman, Loe can rattle off a list of animals that need the water in Strawberry Creek: frogs, insects, salamanders, and birds such as Bell’s vireo and willow flycatchers.
Retired Forest Service biologist Steve Loe voices concerns
Retired Forest Service biologist Steve Loe voices concerns about Nestle’s use of water from the San Bernardino National Forest.
(Photo: Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)
An increasingly rare species of native fish, the Santa Ana speckled dace, used to survive in Strawberry Creek. Then, after the wildfire and floods of 2003, the little fish disappeared from Strawberry Creek and other nearby streams. Scientists who surveyed the area concluded that the devastating fire and flooding had wiped out the populations.
Loe said he suspects the bottling operation contributed to their demise by leaving few spots with enough water for them to survive through the summers. “It makes everything in the stream more vulnerable having all of that water removed.”
Nestle disputes that and says its use of water didn’t harm the fish. But Loe said siphoning off water that could otherwise flow in the creek poses clear threats that need to be fully studied, particularly in light of the drought and climate change.
Loe first raised his concerns in an email in September to a list of federal and state officials and others, including a Nestle Waters manager. He pointed out that Nestle’s permit “has long expired and needs to be reissued,” requiring an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He suggested a meeting.
Soon afterward, Loe met with the Nestle manager and laid out his concerns. Five months later – after he and others sent additional critical letters to the government and after The Desert Sun posed questions about the expired permit – Forest Service officials met with Loe and told him they have started to evaluate the reissuance of the expired permit.
While pleased that the agency acknowledged the issue, Loe still has concerns. He wants to see an environmental study prepared by an independent third party. He also wants a review of Nestle’s use of water from Deer Canyon Springs in the national forest. He said it’s time for immediate measures to put more water into the streams while those environmental reviews, which can take years, are carried out.
“Because of the drought emergency, they need to go beyond just doing the NEPA,” Loe said. “I would like to see the Forest Service and Nestle agree not to take water until they know if it’s OK to take water. This hasn’t been studied in a long time.”
Ultimately, Loe said, protecting the flows of Strawberry Creek will likely require putting limits on how much water can be piped out.
“To keep taking water is just so risky if you care about the long-term health of that stream,” he said. “We should be sitting down with Nestle and we should be saying, ‘We’ve got to do something here.'”
Strawberry Creek cascades down from the mountains in a rocky canyon filled with live oaks, white alder trees and poison oak. Often, the stream is narrow enough to jump across. Running alongside it is a 4-inch stainless steel pipe supported on metal scaffolding.
“That’s Arrowhead’s pipe coming down right there,” said Gary Earney, a retired Forest Service employee, standing on the bank of the creek and leaning on a walking stick.
Earney used to administer permits for the Forest Service, and he said the agency has never done an assessment of how the taking of water affects the creek. Back when the water pipes were installed in the early 20th century, he pointed out, no one conducted environmental reviews. Now, he said, it’s long overdue.
“I’m not opposed to the taking of water. But the water removed needs to be surplus to the needs of the national forest,” Earney said. If the water is needed for wildlife, he said, it should instead be diverted at the national forest’s boundary after it has flowed through the creek.
Determining how much water is needed for a healthy ecosystem, he said, will require a thorough study. And that hasn’t been done in all these years, he said, because the Forest Service lacks sufficient funding after repeated budget cuts and has a large backlog of expired permits.
“It’s a national problem,” Earney said. “I think it’s just improper management and poor funding.”
Walking among boulders, Earney said that if more water were allowed to flow in the creek, it would provide for plants and animals and would also sink into aquifers at the base of the mountains.
“We need to ensure that we have enough water to sustain the forest’s health,” Earney said. “I think we should look at whether or not it’s a more beneficial use of this water to be bottled and sold in small bottles, or to be allowed to go down and drain off the forest and recharge the groundwater.”
While Nestle’s expired permit hasn’t been scrutinized in nearly three decades, some other water users have been required to cut back. In the mid-2000s, as part of a regional review, the Forest Service went through the permits of hundreds of cabins on land in the national forest and reexamined their use of water from creeks. In Barton Flats, for instance, dozens of cabin owners were told they could no longer draw water from Barton Creek; instead, they would have to use wells or install tanks and truck in water. Cabin owners spent thousands of dollars putting in tanks.
“Some of these people had been using the water with water rights for 80 years, and it was very costly to make the change. Nestle takes more water from the stream in one day than the total of all of those cabin owners in a year,” Loe said. “It’s just so unfair.”
“We made the little people do the right thing,” he said, “and we’re not making the big people do the right thing.”
Amanda Frye, a community activist who lives in Redlands, said she finds the lack of oversight by the Forest Service disturbing, particularly during the drought.
“The U.S. government is just giving away our natural resources to an international corporation,” Frye said. “I think that’s really wrong.”