SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California regulators on Tuesday ordered the company that owns Arrowhead bottled water to stop using some natural springs it has relied on for more than a century. This is a victory for community groups who have claimed for years that the practice has drained an important stream, a wildlife habitat and helped protect the area from wildfires.
Arrowhead Bottled Water traces its roots to a hotel in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains that opened in 1885 and began selling bottled spring water from its basement in 1906. But environmental and community groups say the company never had permission to draw water from the springs, which flow through the San Bernardino National Forest on public lands.
On Tuesday, after eight years of wrangling that included dozens of hearings, the state Water Resources Control Board agreed that BlueTriton – the company that owns the Arrowhead brand – does not have permission to use the water and ordered it to stop. The order doesn’t prohibit the company from taking water from the mountain, but it does significantly reduce the amount it can take.
“I understand there is a lot of money and business at stake,” board member Laurel Firestone said. “It is also important for us to ensure that our state’s laws are followed and that they apply to everyone, no matter how much money is involved.”
BlueTriton Brands issued a statement after the vote announcing it would file a lawsuit to block the order and vowed to “vigorously defend our water rights through available legal processes.”
The case has raised questions about water rights in California at a time when the state is grappling with how to manage the resource in the face of a drier future.
And it’s not the first challenge to bottled water companies, either from consumer advocates or groups fighting plastic waste. The U.S. Department of the Interior announced earlier this year that it would stop selling all plastic water bottles in national parks. Poland Springs, also owned by BlueTriton, faced lawsuits because the water did not come from a spring.
Lawyers for BlueTriton said Tuesday that there is ample evidence that the company and its predecessors were using the springs long before 1914, when the state began regulating people’s water use. They argue that this gives them priority in using the springs under California’s complex water rights system.
The company also points to a 1931 court case that they say proves they had a legal right to use the springs – a decision that went unchallenged for decades.
Aside from those arguments, BlueTriton’s lawyers largely argued during Tuesday’s hearing that California regulators don’t have the power to tell them what to do. They said the company is actually extracting water that lies underground and has not yet come to the surface. This is an important distinction because the State Water Resources Control Board does not have the authority to regulate certain types of groundwater.
However, regulators remained unimpressed. They said the company’s claim dates back to 1929, meaning it has no precedence under California water rights law. They said the 1931 lawsuit merely settled a dispute between two parties and was not a declaration that the company had a right to use the water from the springs. And they said government regulators were well within their rights to order the company to stop using these technologies.
“The last thing we want is for anyone diverting water from a spring to circumvent state water law requirements by using a tunnel, borehole or similar method to capture water that would otherwise flow from the spring into a stream would have flowed,” said Ken Petruzzelli. the State Water Resources Control Board’s lead attorney in the case.
The vote was a triumph for a small group of community residents who have been fighting the company for years. They include Amanda Frye, a Redlands resident who has spent countless hours combing through documents to investigate the case. She said as she hikes the mountain, she can see BlueTriton’s pipes bubbling with water as they run through the dry bed of Strawberry Creek.
“Strawberry Creek can no longer support fish,” she said. “Essentially they stuck a straw into each spring and directed it down the mountain to their trucks to pick it up.”
Brendan O’Rourke, who leads BlueTriton’s natural resources team, confirmed that the company’s guiding principle is long-term sustainability. He also said the company has donated tens of thousands of water bottles to disaster relief efforts, including the Maui wildfire this year and the 2018 Camp Fire that largely destroyed the town of Paradise.
“We take our role as environmental protectors very seriously. We have a track record to prove that,” said Rita Maguire, one of BlueTriton’s attorneys and a former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Taxin reported from Orange County.