Parched California Orders Nestle to Back Off the Water Bottling

Drought regulators give the bottlers of Arrowhead 20 days to drastically cut diversions of spring water in the San Bernardino National Forest as the Golden State preps for drought.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Careening toward another summer of bitter drought conditions and urban water restrictions, California is once again targeting Nestle’s bottled-water operation in the parched San Bernardino National Forest.  

State regulators issued Nestle a draft cease and desist order on Friday, alerting it to greatly reduce its take of Southern California spring water used for its Arrowhead brand. Ignoring previous warnings that date back to the state’s last drought, investigators say Nestle continues to exceed its limit by millions of gallons of water per year.

“It is concerning that these diversions are continuing despite recommendations from the initial report, and while the state is heading into a second dry year,” said Jule Rizzardo, assistant deputy director for the Division of Water Rights. “The state will use its enforcement authority to protect water and other natural resources as we step up our efforts to further build California’s drought resilience.”

The bottled water fight dates back to 2015, when the water board received complaints from the Story of Stuff Project that Nestle was operating with expired permits and taking excess water from a tributary of the Santa Ana River.  A 20-month investigation ensued, after which the state concluded Nestle was pumping well past its yearly 8.5 million-gallon limit, including as much as 32 million in 2016.

Nestle contends the diversions are well within its water rights that date back to 1865, and that it will fight the water board’s pending order. The company has since sold its North American water business and now operates under the name Blue Triton Brands.

The company’s spring water diversion site is located at the headwaters of Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. The creek feeds Southern California’s largest river, the Santa Ana River, which provides water to reservoirs such as Big Bear Lake, Lake Perris and Lake Elsinore. In total, the creek provides municipal supplies for an estimated 750,000 customers.

Groups fighting to plug Nestle’s pipes implored it to comply with the state and stop diverting from Strawberry Creek.

“It’s time for Nestle’s new owners to do the right thing and cease their operations in this national forest, which belongs to all Americans,” said Michael O’Heaney, executive director of Story of Stuff Project. “The company should accept the draft cease & desist order and cede any remaining rights it may hold to the Forest Service to revitalize Strawberry Creek.”

The revived argument with Nestle comes as Governor Gavin Newsom has already declared drought emergencies in Sonoma and Mendocino counties after two straight dry winters. He’s also being pressured by lawmakers and environmental groups to extend the emergencies statewide.

California received precious little precipitation during its current water year, which began in October, with water managers chalking it up as the fourth driest on record dating back to 1877. Only 22.4 inches fell in the northern Sierra as measured by the 8-station index. The average annual precipitation is about 50 inches. 

The draft order released Friday gives the company 20 days to respond or request a hearing, with a final order from the water board to follow. The proposal directs the company to abide by a pre-1914 water right of 7.26 acre-feet — just under 2.4 million gallons — per year as well as submit frequent monitoring and compliance reports. The company has argued it holds the rights to 271 acre-feet, or nearly 88 million gallons, per year from the watershed.

“While Nestle may be able to claim a valid basis of right to some water from the Strawberry Creek watershed, a significant portion of the water currently diverted by Nestle appears to be diverted without a valid basis of right,” the water board investigation states.  

In response to the draft order, BlueTriton Brands said it has provided an “excellent product loved by Californians” for over 125 years, and called the company “good stewards of the environment.” A spokesperson said the company disagrees with the water board’s findings and will “pursue all legal options available.”

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