Creek beds are bone dry and once-gushing springs are reduced to trickles as fights play out around the nation over control of nations freshwater supply
The network of clear streams comprising Californias Strawberry Creek run down the side of a steep, rocky mountain in a national forest two hours east of Los Angeles. Last year Nestl siphoned 45m gallons of pristine spring water from the creek and bottled it under the Arrowhead Water label.
Though its on federal land, the Swiss bottled water giant paid the US Forest Service and state practically nothing, and it profited handsomely: Nestl Waters 2018 worldwide sales exceeded $7.8bn.
Conservationists say some creek beds in the area are now bone dry and once-gushing springs have been reduced to mere trickles. The Forest Service recently determined Nestls activities left Strawberry Creek impaired while the current water extraction is drying up surface water resources.
Meanwhile, the state is investigating whether Nestl is illegally drawing from Strawberry Creek and in 2017 advised it to immediately cease any unauthorized diversions. Still, a year later, the Forest Service approved a new five-year permit that allows Nestl to continue using federal land to extract water, a decision critics say defies common sense.
Strawberry Creek is emblematic of the intense, complex water fights playing out around the nation between Nestl, grassroots opposition, and government officials. At stake is control of the nations freshwater supply and billions in profits as Nestl bottles Americas water then sells it back in plastic bottles. Those in opposition, such as Amanda Frye, an author and nutritionist, increasingly view Nestl as a corporate villain motivated by greed.
These are people who just want to make money, but theyve already dried up the upper Strawberry Creek and theyve done a lot of damage, she said. Theyre a foreign corporation taking our natural resources, which makes it even worse.
Critics characterize Nestl as a predatory water company that targets struggling communities with sometimes exaggerated job promises while employing a variety of cheap strategies, like donating to local boy scouts, to win over small town officials who hold the keys to valuable springs.
Its spending on lobbying and campaign contributions at the federal and state levels totals in the millions annually, the revolving door between the company and government perpetually turns, and it maintains cozy relationships with federal officials from the Forest Service to Trump administration.
Such tactics are partly whats behind the Forest Services Strawberry Creek decision to allow Nestl to pull water from federal land, said Michael OHeaney, director of the Los Angeles-based environmental group Story of Stuff, which has sued to stop Nestl.
You have Nestl spouting this idea of shared benefits and Were in it for the communities, but when you see the way they operate on the ground theyre very skilled at cozying up with legislators, state officials and getting their way, he said.
Nestl Waters, which owns 51 brands including Ice Mountain, Poland Spring, and Zephyrhills, sees a much different reality. It presents itself as a responsible steward of Americas water and an eco-friendly healthy hydration company aiming to save the worlds freshwater supply.
It calls itself a job creator that invests heavily in local municipalities and says it bottles a minuscule amount of the nations water. Nestl resource manager Larry Lawrence insists the company obtained the right to Strawberry Creeks when it purchased Arrowhead, and says its science backs claims that it draws water sustainably.
The argument that there should be some flowing stream bed [in upper Strawberry Creek] we dont necessarily believe that and thats what were testing for, Lawrence said.
Ultimately, the debates particulars lead back to a question at the heart of issue: should water be commodified and sold by private industry, or is it a basic human right?
Former Nestl chief executive and chairman Peter Brabeck labeled the latter viewpoint extreme and called water a grocery product that should have a market value. He later amended that, arguing 25 liters of water daily is a human right, but water used to fill a pool or wash a car shouldnt be free. At its current pace, the world will run out of freshwater before oil, Brabeck said, and he suggests privatization is the answer.
While conservationists agree that pool water could be subjected to fees, Nisha Swinton, senior organizer at the Food and Water Watch environmental group, says the public not a company that has to appease their stockholders and make money on privatizing water should be responsible for that.
This is not an issue for a multinational corporation to have control over this is an issue for the public to hang on to and protect as their own, she said.