California environmental group sues US Forest Service over Arrowhead bottled water operation

A Southern California environmental group is suing the US Forest Service for allowing bottled water company BlueTriton Brands to extract water from the San Bernardino National Forest.

The nonprofit group Save Our Forest Assn. filed suit in federal court, arguing that the Forest Service violated federal laws by allowing the company to continue piping water from wells and water tunnels in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The environmental group said the extraction of the water, which is bottled and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water, has dramatically reduced the flow of Strawberry Creek and is causing significant environmental damage.

The group said the Forest Service has granted the company “illegal trespass” on public lands and asked the U.S. District Court to order the agency to shut down the pipeline network and remove water diversion infrastructure from the national forest.

“The US Forest Service must be responsible for protecting our natural resources,” said Hugh Bialecki, president of the Save Our Forest Assn.

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The lawsuit is the latest in several attempts by activists to stop the use of spring water from the mountains north of San Bernardino.

After a long time inquiry, state water regulators determined last year that the company illegally diverted much of the water without valid water rights. State Water Resources Control Board voted to commission the company to stop “unauthorized diversions” of water from springs in the national forest. But BlueTriton brands sue to challenge that decision, arguing that the process was fraught with problems and that the company has a right to the water.

With the state’s injunction delayed by that lawsuit, Bialecki and other activists decided to challenge the Forest Service’s decision to allow the company to continue operating on national forest land for the past five years.

The agency said it does not comment on pending litigation and that officials are currently reviewing the company’s latest permit application.

BlueTriton Brands is not named as a defendant in the case.

The company said in an email that the lawsuit “has no merit, and simply repackages arguments that advocacy groups have unsuccessfully argued in previous legal proceedings.” BlueTriton “will continue to operate in compliance with all state and federal laws,” the company said.

Environmental activists have campaigned for years for state and federal authorities to shut down the pipeline after one 2015 investigation by Desert Sun found that the Forest Service was allowing Nestlé to continue taking water using a permit that listed 1988 as the expiration date.

Forest Service next a review started of Nestlé’s permission, and in 2018 granted a new permit. The revelations about Nestlé’s extraction of water from the national forest sparked a outpouring of opposition and sparked several complaints with California regulators questioning the company’s water rights claims, leading to inquiry.

BlueTriton Brands took over the bottled water business in 2021, when Nestlé’s North American bottled water division was acquired by private equity firm One Rock Capital Partners and investment firm Metropoulos & Co. (This month, BlueTriton and Primo Water Corp. announced plans to merge and form a new company.)

BlueTriton and the previous owners of the business have for years held a federal “special use” permit that allows them to use the pipeline and other water infrastructure in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The Forest Service has charged an annual fee for the use of the land, currently $2,500 per year. There was no water charge.

When the agency granted the permit in 2018, it was for a three-year term with two optional years. The permit expired in August 2023, said Gustavo Bahena, a spokesman for the San Bernardino National Forest.

Forestry staff “are in the process of reviewing their latest application,” Bahena said in an email.

“Because BlueTriton had a timely request to renew the permit, the current permit remains in effect under the Administrative Procedures Act until the forest makes a decision on their new request,” Bahena said. “BlueTriton’s operations in the forest are governed by its permit and all terms and conditions of the permit remain in full force and effect.”

IN suit, Save Our Forest Assn. argues that when the Forest Service issued the 2018 permit, it violated several laws — including the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The group asked the court to overturn the agency’s latest permit decision and bar officials from allowing water diversions until they conduct a new environmental review. They asked the court to order the Forest Service to remove, or require the company to remove, the structures and water diversion pipes and restore the area in Strawberry Canyon to its natural state.

Steve Loe, a retired biologist who previously worked for the San Bernardino National Forest, said officials have known for decades that water withdrawals harmed the ecosystem.

“This is the public’s land and water, not a corporation that is using it for their own gain at the expense of the public,” Loe said.

The lawsuit says the Forest Service illegally allowed BlueTriton to continue operating without a “valid” permit.

The company disagreed, saying “BlueTriton’s current special use permit authorizing its operations at Strawberry Canyon remains in full force and effect.”

A court previously heard a dispute over Nestlé’s permit when other environmental groups sued in 2015, accusing the Forest Service of violating the law.

A federal judge next to the Forest Service in 2016, ruling that the existing permit — which listed an expiration date in 1988 — was still valid because in 1987 the company’s predecessor applied for a permit renewal and did not receive a response. Environmental groups later reached a solution with the government in that legal battle.

In the new lawsuit, environmentalists cite historical records that describe the springs and creek nearly a century ago. Records include field notes and reports by WP Rowe, a civil engineer who surveyed the watershed beginning in 1929.

Rowe wrote that Strawberry Creek flowed on the southern slope of the San Bernardino Mountains from a “spring in a cluster of springs” and passed through a canyon filled with “oel, sycamore, dogwood, and cedar along with ferns and berry bushes “.

State water officials said in a report on their investigation findings that the first facilities to divert water in the Strawberry Creek watershed were built in 1929, and the system was expanded over the years as additional wells were drilled into the mountainside. The 4-inch steel pipe system collects the water that flows from various places on the broken slopes above the stream.

The data shows about 319 acre-feet, or 104 million gallons, flowed through the company’s pipeline network in 2023. The pipeline goes to a roadside reservoir, and some of the water is trucked to a bottling plant.

Bialecki and other members of the environmental group said historical records show that before the water was concentrated for bottling, the creek supported a thriving riparian habitat. They said banning diversions would help endangered bird species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and the lesser Bell’s vireo, as well as other species including the mountain yellow-legged frog and southern rubber boa.

Water extraction has also reduced flows to the groundwater basin at the foot of the mountains, contributing to a “local deficit” of water, the group said.

BlueTriton said is focused on “responsible and proactive water management”.

“For nearly a decade, in coordination with the US Forest Service, we have engaged expert scientific consultants who have studied the Strawberry Canyon area in an unprecedented level of detail,” the company said, adding that the findings showed “no material difference between environmental and habitat conditions in the Strawberry Canyon watershed where we operate and adjacent canyons where we do not operate.”

The company’s opponents disagree, saying in the lawsuit that the pipelines cause “all water to be removed” from springs and dry up the West Fork of the creek during the summer and fall, “causing significant environmental harm.”

Amanda Frye, an activist who has campaigned for years against taking water from the national forest, said she hopes the lawsuit will bring about change.

“We’ve tried everything,” she said. “It’s funny because it just keeps going.”

“The forest was established to protect the watershed,” she said, “and here they’re just allowing it to be destroyed.”

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