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California may limit how much company behind Arrowhead bottled water can draw from mountain springs

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Posted at 12:57 PM, Sep 19, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials may vote Tuesday to slash how much water the company that makes Arrowhead bottled water can pull from a watershed in the San Bernardino National Forest, the latest action in a yearslong dispute.

The State Water Resources Control Board will consider whether to issue a cease-and-desist order against BlueTriton, the company that produces the widely-known Arrowhead water.

For more than a century, the company has drawn water from certain points in the San Bernardino National Forest. The water board's order wouldn't bar BlueTriton entirely from taking water from the mountains but would restrict it.

The proposal comes after years of fighting between the bottling company and residents who want to protect the watershed and see it restored to its natural state.

The controversy began years ago after residents of nearby communities raised questions about the drying habitat in places that once had springs supporting wildlife including fish. The U.S. Forest Service acknowledged that a permit for pipes carrying the water had expired and issued a new permit for this pipeline to the company, which then was Nestle Waters North America.

State officials also investigated. The case went before an administrative hearing office for the State Water Resources Control Board. The office determined the company didn't have the right to take water from several spots in the Strawberry Creek Watershed. In other spots further downstream, the office said more investigation would be needed for state officials to make such a claim.

BlueTriton collected 68 million gallons (257 million liters) of water in 2019 from the spring but only bottled about 10 million gallons (38 million liters), returning most of the rest to the watershed, the company said in an email. A portion of the water the company collected was also channeled to a Native American tribe under a longstanding agreement.

BlueTriton said in a statement that the company will comply with any final determination from the board.

“We have never taken more water than we believe we are legally entitled to, nor will we in the future,” the statement said.

The case has raised questions about water rights in California during a time when the state is grappling with how to manage the resource in the face of a drier future.

And it's not the first challenge against bottled water companies, either from consumer advocates or groups fighting against plastic waste. The U.S. Interior Department said earlier this year it would phase out the sale of all plastic water bottles in national parks. Poland Springs, also owned by Nestle and now BlueTriton, has faced lawsuits claiming its water doesn't come from a spring.

Amanda Frye, a resident of the nearby community of Redlands who investigated BlueTriton's claims to water rights, said she couldn't believe a private company was drawing water from a national forest and bottling it for sale.

“They turned a perennial stream into a dry creek bed," she said. “I am hoping this can all be restored and it will help our watershed."

Michael O'Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff project, said he doubts this will be the last of the fight. The group fights against over-consumption and is one of the parties to the hearing.

O’Heaney said that he and local residents will continue to pressure the state board to take action on the remaining points where the company is drawing water and the U.S. Forest Service to refrain from renewing a permit for the pipeline.

He also said he wants to see the company penalized for the years it took millions of gallons of water.

“It's a really valuable natural resource they're currently paying nothing for,” O’Heaney said.

Arrowhead got its name from a near-perfect arrowhead shape on the side of the San Bernardino Mountains, shaped by variations in geology and soil conditions. That's also the inspiration for the name of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, which began bottling water in its basement in 1906. At first, the water was only available for sale at the hotel. But the company started selling the water more widely in 1909, according to a 1999 report by Dames & Moore, a consultant to one of BlueTriton’s predecessors.

Now the hotel is operated by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The order under consideration by the water board makes an exception for water diverted to the tribe.