Jul 22 8:45 AM

While California sips its scarce water, Nestlé gulps

Arrowhead Cabazon
Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water bottling plant, owned by Nestle, is on the Morongo Indian Reservation near Cabazon, Calif., and so is not subject to state oversight.
Damian Dovarganes / AP

Last week saw California adopt mandatory restrictions on civilian water use. People caught watering their lawns to the point of runoff, hosing off sidewalks or driveways or washing cars without a shut-off nozzle can face fines of up to $500 a day.

The Golden State is in the third year of record drought, and while these consumer restrictions are not expected to make a sizeable dent in state water usage on their own, officials hope the fines, which go into effect August 1, will send a message to Californians who apparently have yet to grasp the severity of the situation.

That message, however, has not, it seems, reached Nestlé Waters North America, makers of a variety of bottled waters, including Arrowhead brand.

At least that’s the assumption. California water officials can only guess.

In contrast to the Arrowhead labels showing snowy mountain streams, the water in many of those bottles comes from a spring in Millard Canyon, on the grounds of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation in Cabazon, Calif., west of Palm Springs.

Access to the spring actually belongs to the Morongo tribe, which bought the rights from the Cabazon Water District in the early part of the last decade for $3 million. Soon after, the tribe cut a 25-year deal with Perrier Group of America, a division of Nestlé, to bottle Arrowhead water.

California water districts are required to report their water consumption and the levels in their wells to the state. The Morongo Indians, however, are a sovereign nation, and therefore exempt form oversight.

Through 2009, Nestlé Waters, the division that operates the Millard Canyon facility, provided the state with annual reports, but after that, the flow of information has slowed to a trickle. The state has used a rounded estimate of 244 million gallons pumped out per year — roughly the annual usage for 480 area homes, according to calculations used by area newspaper The Desert Sun.

A spokesman for the Morongo tribe insisted they had a long history of caring for the environment and argued their partnership with Nestlé created 250 jobs. But others on the reservation and in surrounding communities wonder if shipping out bottled water is the best use of a scarce resource.

“The reason this particular plant is of special concern is precisely because water is so scarce in the basin,” said Peter Gleick in The Desert Sun. Gleick has toured the Millard Canyon plant in the past and has written about the bottled water industry. “Surface water in the desert is exceedingly rare and has a much higher environmental value than the same amount of water somewhere else,” Gleick said.

The Arrowhead facility is one of Nestlé’s largest in North America, but it not the only one to see controversy. The company, under its Poland Spring brand, has been in a decade-long struggle with Maine over rights to drill springs and purchase water from a variety of counties outside the area where the original Poland Spring was sourced. The company has also been sued for selling regular municipal groundwater as natural spring water.

Nestlé is America’s largest water bottler, controlling a third of the market. In addition to Arrowhead and Poland Spring, it sells water under the Nestlé Pure Life, Deer Park, Perrier and San Pellegrino names, as well as several other regional brands.

Nestlé insists its water bottling facilities are operated with an eye toward environmental sustainability. Of course, given that bottled water is not really environmentally sustainable on its own, that would be a very neat trick.

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