November 30, 2023

California has ordered the company that owns Arrowhead bottled water to stop using some of the natural springs it has utilized for more than a century, following a years-long campaign by environmentalists to stop the operation.

Regulators on Tuesday voted to significantly reduce how much water BlueTriton – the owner of the Arrowhead brand – can take from public lands in the San Bernardino mountains. The ruling is a victory for community groups who have said for years that the bottled water firm has drained an important creek that serves as a habitat for wildlife and helps protect the area from wildfires.

Arrowhead bottled water traces its roots to a hotel at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains that first opened in 1885 and began selling bottled spring water from its basement in 1906. But environmental and community groups say the company has never had permission to take water from the springs in the San Bernardino national forest.

The state water resources control board agreed that BlueTriton does not have permission to use the water and ordered the company to stop. The order does not ban the company from taking any water from the mountain, but it significantly reduces how much it can take.

Activist Bridger Zadina drinks spring water flowing from a BlueTriton pipe in the San Bernardino national forest.
Activist Bridger Zadina drinks spring water flowing from a BlueTriton pipe in the San Bernardino national forest. Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

“I understand a huge amount of money and business is at stake,” board member Laurel Firestone said. “It also is important for us that no matter how much money is involved that we are going to ensure that the laws of our state are upheld and that they apply to everybody.”

The board voted unanimously to limit how much water the company can siphon, issuing a cease-and-desist order.

In a statement after the vote, BlueTriton Brandsindicated it would sue to block the order, vowing to “vigorously defend our water rights through available legal process”.

Lawyers for BlueTriton had argued there was ample evidence the company and its predecessors have been using the springs since well before 1914, when the state began regulating how people can use water. They argue that gives them seniority to use the springs under California’s complex water rights system.

The company also points to a 1931 court case that they say proves they have a legal right to use the springs – a ruling that went unchallenged for decades.

At Tuesday’s hearing, BlueTriton lawyers also argued the company was not under the authority of California regulators. They said the company actually takes water that is underground and has not reached the surface – an important distinction as the the state water resources control board does not have the power to regulate certain types of groundwater.

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But regulators were unmoved. They said the company’s claim dated to 1929, meaning it does not have seniority under California’s water rights law. They said the 1931 court case 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 state regulators were well within their rights to order the company to stop using them.

Spring water flows from a BlueTriton pipe in the San Bernardino national forest.
Spring water flows from a BlueTriton pipe in the San Bernardino national forest. Photograph: Ashley Landis/AP

The vote was a triumph for a small band of community residents who havefought the company for years.

Amanda Frye, a resident of Redlands who has spent countless hours combing through documents to investigate the case, said when hiking the mountain, she can see BlueTriton’s pipes gushing with water as they run along the dry bed of Strawberry Creek.

“Strawberry Creek can no longer support fish,” she said. “Essentially they inserted a straw into each spring and diverted it down the mountain to their trucks to take it away.”

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