Environmentalists urge California wildlife officials to investigate bottled water operation

Rimforest, CA - December 04: Activist Bridger Zadina drinks from a pipe where water drains into a creek bed beside a water collection tunnel in the San Bernardino National Forest. He and other activists have been demanding that the company BlueTriton Brands stop piping water from the national forest to sell as Arrowhead brand bottled water. Photos taken in San Bernardino National Forest on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, near Rimforest, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Activist Bridger Zadina drinks from a pipe where water drains into a creek bed during a 2021 visit to an area of the San Bernardino National Forest where water is collected for bottling. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Environmental activists have opened a new front in their long-running fight against a company that pipes water from the San Bernardino Mountains and bottles it for sale as Arrowhead brand bottled water.

In a petition to the state, several environmental groups and local activists called for an investigation by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, arguing that the company BlueTriton Brands is harming wildlife habitat and species by extracting water that would otherwise flow in Strawberry Creek.

Those who oppose the taking of water from San Bernardino National Forest want the state agency to assess the environmental effects and uphold protections under state law, said Rachel Doughty, a lawyer for the environmental nonprofit Story of Stuff Project.

“They've dewatered the creek,” Doughty said.

If the company weren’t siphoning water in its network of pipes, she said, Strawberry Creek “would be habitat for endangered species, it would be providing a downstream water supply, it would support fish, and it can't do any of those things without water.”

The coalition of environmental groups and activists said in their May 13 petition that the state agency should demand the company apply for an authorization — called a streambed alteration agreement — for its pipes and other infrastructure, and should examine whether the ongoing diversion of water violates state environmental laws.

The groups said the company’s taking of water has “caused the extirpation of native species and the destruction of riparian habitat — clearcut harm to the public trust.” They urged the state to “take all appropriate enforcement action.”

Activists who have been trying to shut down the company’s bottled water pipeline made their appeal to the wildlife agency eight months after the State Water Resources Control Board voted to order the company to halt its “unauthorized diversions” of water from springs in the San Bernardino Mountains.

State officials determined the company has been unlawfully diverting water without valid water rights. But BlueTriton Brands sued to challenge that decision in Fresno County Superior Court, arguing the process was rife with problems and that the company is entitled to the water.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said the agency has received the petition and is evaluating it.

BlueTriton Brands responded to the petition in an email.

“Responsible and proactive water stewardship is central to everything we do. We’re proud of the work we’ve done and continue to do in Strawberry Canyon, studying, reporting, and managing our operations to help protect the land and natural resources,” the company said. “We will continue to operate in compliance with all state and federal laws.”

The company also said it will “partner with people in our communities, governments, policy makers, businesses, and consumers to sustainably protect and shape our shared future.”

But Steve Loe, a retired biologist who previously worked for the San Bernardino National Forest, said the state should require the company to stop taking water from the creek and the ecosystem.

“The stream has been completely dried up by BlueTriton, and BlueTriton needs to put some water back in the stream to meet state and federal requirements,” Loe said. “Restoring water back to Strawberry Creek will make a huge difference in the watershed for all of the plant and animal species.”

Read more: California orders bottled water company to stop 'unauthorized' piping from springs

Restoring water to the habitat would help endangered bird species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and least Bell’s vireo, he said, as well as other species including the mountain yellow-legged frog and southern rubber boa.

He said a flowing creek could also support the return of native fish species, such as Santa Ana speckled dace.

In the petition, Loe and others cited historical records describing the springs and the creek nearly a century ago, including field notes and reports from W.P. Rowe, an engineer who surveyed the watershed starting in 1929.

Rowe wrote that Strawberry Creek flowed on the south slope of the San Bernardino Mountains from a “source at a group of springs” and flowed in a canyon filled with “alder, sycamore, dogwood and cedar trees together with ferns and thimble berry bushes.”

Loe said the records show that before the water was tapped for bottling, the stream was flowing and supported a thriving riparian habitat, which is now largely dry.

“It’s public water,” Loe said. “And the public has a right to push for its protection.”

“I want water back in the creek this summer,” he said.

In the decision that is being argued in court, the state water board ordered the company to stop taking water for bottling from most of its water-collection tunnels and boreholes in the mountains north of San Bernardino.

Records show about 158 acre-feet, or 51 million gallons, flowed through the company’s network of pipes in 2022.

The system of 4-inch steel pipes collects water that flows from various sites on the steep mountainside above the creek.

The pipeline runs to a roadside tank, and some of the water is hauled away on trucks to be bottled and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.

Read more: Arrowhead bottled water company sues to continue piping from California forest

Local activists have campaigned for years calling for state and federal authorities to shut down the bottled water pipeline. Controversy over the use of water from the national forest erupted after a 2015 investigation by the Desert Sun revealed that the U.S. Forest Service was allowing Nestlé to continue siphoning water using a permit that listed 1988 as the expiration date.

The Forest Service subsequently began a review of Nestlé’s permit, and in 2018 granted a new permit for up to five years. The revelations about Nestlé piping water out of the national forest sparked an outpouring of opposition and prompted several complaints to California regulators questioning the company’s water rights claims, which led to the state’s investigation.

BlueTriton Brands took over the bottled water business in 2021 when Nestlé’s North American bottled water division was purchased by private-equity firm One Rock Capital Partners and investment firm Metropoulos & Co.

BlueTriton and prior owners of the business have for years had a federal “special-use” permit allowing them to use the pipeline and other water infrastructure in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The Forest Service has been charging an annual permit fee, currently $2,500 per year. There has been no fee for using the water.

BlueTriton’s 2018 permit expired in August, and the company has submitted an application to renew the permit, which Forest Service officials are reviewing, said Gustavo Bahena, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino National Forest.

“Because Blue Triton had a timely request for renewal of the permit, the current permit remains in effect… until the Forest renders a decision on their new request,” Bahena said in an email.

Other groups that are petitioning the state include Save Our Forest Assn., Center for Biological Diversity, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Southern California Native Freshwater Fauna Working Group and the Tri-County Conservation League.

Amanda Frye, an activist who has taken a leading role in the campaign, said she thinks the Forest Service is failing to uphold its responsibility to manage public land and resources.

“We still have a dry creek,” Frye said.

“Something’s got to change,” she said. “We have the right to have these resources protected.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.