California orders bottled water company to stop ‘unauthorized’ piping from springs

Water faucet
Photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash

By Ian James
Sept. 9, 2023

A spokesperson for BlueTriton Brands said in an email that the company and its predecessors “have collected water from Arrowhead Springs in Strawberry Canyon in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way for more than 125 years.”

BlueTriton, based in Stamford, Conn., took over the operation when Nestlé Waters North America was purchased by private-equity firm One Rock Capital Partners and investment firm Metropoulos & Co.

The board’s order “marks a radical departure from express statutory limitations” and legal precedents concerning the agency’s water-rights permitting authority, the company said.

BlueTriton said the ruling “creates water rights uncertainty” and negatively affects other water users that rely on groundwater. The company said it will “vigorously defend our water rights through the available legal process.”

The State Water Board ordered BlueTriton to comply with the order by Nov. 1. The company has 30 days to appeal to the board.

The springs are the original source of Arrowhead brand bottled water, named after an arrowhead-shaped natural rock formation on the mountainside.

The company has said Arrowhead bottled water is sourced from 11 spring sites across California, as well as one spring in Colorado and another in British Columbia. The source north of San Bernardino is the only one located in a national forest.

Although the state’s order calls for halting “unauthorized diversions” of water, it doesn’t prevent BlueTriton from continuing to divert water in the same pipeline under other rights to the long-vacant Arrowhead Springs hotel property, which is owned by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

The company has for years had a federal “special-use” permit allowing it to use its pipeline and other water infrastructure in the national forest, paying an annual fee that as of last year was $1,950. There has been no fee for using the water.

Dave Anderson, the national forest’s special uses and lands program manager, said the agency will respond once the ruling is officially in print. Based on the decision, Anderson said he expects “we will not be able to issue them a permit” because the agency requires applicants to present proof of water rights.

State officials said the order effectively restricts 80% of BlueTriton’s diversions from the watershed.

Jule Rizzardo, assistant deputy director of the agency’s water rights division, served as the lead prosecutor and said the case is the most important she has worked on in her 25-year career.

“This enforcement action illustrates the power of public participation, the impacts of unauthorized diversion and the need for accountability,” Rizzardo said.

Roberto Cervantes, the board’s supervising engineer, said the public involvement in the case, which included thousands of comments submitted, “proves that when the community unites, even giants can be held accountable.”

Frye, who filed one of the complaints that prompted the state’s investigation, said she thinks the result “shows that the public does have a voice.”

“It’s California’s water, so it goes for the people of California — and for the forest,” Frye said. “I’m hoping that we can see Strawberry Creek flow again, the springs back to their natural state, and the forest ecosystem return to what it was before the diversions.”

Rachel Doughty, a lawyer for Story of Stuff Project, said the involvement of Frye and other local people over the last several years was instrumental in leading to the board’s decision. She said the conclusions of the state’s investigation were clear, and that while public resources were taken and depleted over the last century, the company and its predecessors “were raking in profits and misrepresenting their right to the water.”

Lisa Belenky, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said by adopting the order, the state has taken “a critical first step toward protecting this creek and Strawberry Canyon’s springs, as well as the fish, wildlife and riparian vegetation that depend on these waters.”

Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service biologist who has called for shutting down the pipeline, said he was thrilled about the decision.

“Getting the water back into the stream and creeks will allow them and surrounding habitat to recover, benefiting all plants and wildlife,” Loe said.