Strawberry Creek's water travels down four-and-a-half miles of steel pipe to a collection tank before being bottled in Ontario. Photo: Jay Calderon

By David Dayen
12 August 2016

(Los Angeles Magazine) – To reach Well Complex 7, you must wind along Highway 18 as it rises 5,642 feet above sea level through the San Bernardino National Forest, the green mountains framing the sprawl of the Inland Empire. Near the burg of Rimforest, you park on the shoulder and descend into a narrow canyon along the west fork of Strawberry Creek, where the chaparral blocks out the gusts of wind and noise of the road. Then follow the trail past California myrtle to a concrete-and-stone bunker, cracked from decades of use.

Gary Earney, a retired 30-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, is leading me and 25 activists on a hike to the complex of four wells, which diverts water from an underground spring 400 feet inside the mountain. From there it travels via four-inch steel pipes down the face of the canyon to a tank four-and-a-half miles away, eventually finding itself in bottles bearing the Arrowhead brand name. It sells for $2 a liter.

Since the Swiss food-and-beverage conglomerate Nestlé acquired Arrowhead in 1992, it has paid the forest service just $524 a year for access to the water. A little solar panel provides all the power needed to control the flow; no staff oversees operations. The water rights themselves, which the company says are based on a 19th-century possessory claim, cost nothing.

Last year Nestlé’s 12 wells pulled 36 million gallons from Strawberry Creek. That’s a fraction of the $7.5 billion in global sales the nation’s largest bottled water producer totaled last year, but the math still galls. “A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation tells us that Nestlé is making hundreds of millions of dollars from this water,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. “They’re converting a public resource into private profit.”

You would think that an operation like this on public land would generate government interest. But despite the ongoing drought, the forest service allowed the permit for the operation to expire in 1988. It has not scientifically evaluated the effects of groundwater extraction on wildlife and the environment since then, letting Nestlé continue to pump as long as it pays the tiny access fee. [more]

How Nestlé Gets Away With Pumping California’s Water for Next to Nothing



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