Nestlé has been bottling and selling water that it does not have the legal right to use, officials in California have concluded.
Fights over water are a constant in California, exacerbated when drought years make the supply especially scarce. Since 2015, officials with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) had received numerous complaints that Nestlé was claiming water from the San Bernardino National Forest to which it had no right and then selling it under its Arrowhead brand.
Because California allocates water rights in part based on who got there first, getting to the bottom of those allegations required a deep dive into history. Nestlé cited a 150-year-old claim by a man named David Noble Smith whose property later became the site of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, for instance.
The company’s materials tout its history in California and its commitment to “sourcing water exclusively from carefully selected mountain springs,” which “ensures that every drop is as crystal clear as the water revered by Native Americans for its healing powers”.
“Westerners have savoured the natural goodness of Arrowhead water since bottling began in the 1890s,” the company’s website proclaims.
After combing through decades worth of permitting information, the water board declared last week that the company had no basis for much of the water it was draining from the Strawberry Canyon watershed. It said the company’s invocation of David Noble Smith was “not valid for Nestlé’s current appropriative diversion and use of water from the San Bernardino National Forest”.
“A significant portion of the water currently diverted by Nestlé appears to be diverted without a valid basis of right,” the report said.
Ultimately, the board found Nestlé had the right to about 26 acre-feet a year, or about 8.5m gallons, but had averaged some 192 acre-feet a year, or about 62m gallons.
The board’s report isn’t the same as an enforceable order. It issued a series of recommendations for Nestlé in a letter to the company, including suggesting the company “cease any unauthorised diversions”, submit a compliance plan and secure a permit for diverting water beyond its allowance.
In a statement, Nestlé said it was pleased the water board had vindicated its claim to “a significant amount of the water in Strawberry Canyon”.
“We look forward to cooperating with the SWRCB during the review process and to providing the necessary documents to supplement the SWRCB’s report, including producing information requested from over a century ago, to the extent that it is available,” the statement said.
While California law does not prohibit private companies like Nestlé from bottling the state’s water, the company is a regular target for environmentalists, Native Americans and other activists.