Water bottling companies have been tapping resources in California for more than 100 years with very little oversight, sending their products across the country and around the world. The drought, now entering its fourth year, has put a new spotlight on these activities, but bottlers maintain that the percentage of water they use is miniscule compared to the insatiable thirsts of California agriculture and in-state residents.
That’s true. Agriculture sucks up 80-90% of the water used in the state, and industrial users, which include the bottlers, account for around 1%. But that doesn’t mean water drawn for bottling doesn’t have an impact, especially on the immediate surrounding environment. And no one seems to be monitoring that.
Case in point: Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. Nestle Waters North America has been bottling its Arrowhead water from springs that feed the creek for decades, although its permit to transport it via pipeline across the national forest expired in 1988, according to the Desert Sun.
U.S. Forest Service officials told the Desert Sun that it has started to evaluate reissuance of the permit after receiving inquiries from newspaper and conservationists. An updated permit would require environmental reviews, which could take years. For now, one can only guess at how much water is siphoned away from the creek and what effect it has on the ecosystem.
There has never been an environmental assessment of bottling at Strawberry Creek. And no government authority has ever told Nestle to cut back its operations because of the drought. That’s how public review of big corporations is conducted; it’s not that way for individual water users.
In the mid-2000s, according to the Desert Sun, the Forest Service reviewed more than 700 water permits held by cabin-dwellers on national forest land in the region. The agency compelled dozens of owners to stop drawing water from Barton Creek They were forced to dig wells or buy tanks and truck in their water.
The feds manage around 1,500 permits in the San Bernardino National Forest and 360 of those are expired. Nestle is one of those, but has managed to avoid the scrutiny of others.
“The thing is that Nestle continues to pay the fee that they were charged back when the permit was still valid,” Al Colby, a federal employee who oversees permits, told the Desert Sun. “Basically, as long as they're paying the fee that was established before it expired, the permit is enforceable.”
The permit fee is $540. It allows Nestle to use horizontal wells and tap a dozen spring sites for conveyance along four miles of pipelines through the forest.
As is the case with operations across the state, there is no comprehensive attempt to track how much water is extracted, bottled and shipped, and local data that is gathered is sketchy and difficult to obtain. Much of what information does exist is self-reported by bottling companies.
“As it is often said, you can't manage what you don't measure,” U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) said in a recent statement. “This industry is not being transparent about how much water they use. In this time of drought, this is essential information.”
California is only just now beginning to assess how much water is taken out of the ground statewide in anticipation of easing into new conservation policies during the coming years. Despite growing angst and some fearsome rhetoric, the measures discussed so far would be of little consequence in the face of an extended megadrought of 30 to 50 years, or permanent climate change.
The lack of immediacy is reflected in the pace of dealing with Nestle’s expired permit in Strawberry Creek. Robert Taylor, the national forest hydrologist, said, “We have a lot to do. There are a lot of expired permits. . . . I have 660,000 acres of the national forest to work on, and I'm just one guy. When it becomes a priority, I'll deal with it.”