The country’s largest bottled water company has found a way to bypass California’s strict water use restrictions: bottle water on an Indian reservation.
As Californians struggle with the extreme drought gripping the entire state and work to preserve the precious resource by implementing bans and restrictions regarding its use, a major food supplier has been taking water from a particularly parched part of the state and bottling it.
Since 2002, Nestle has had a deal with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians that allows the food giant to pump water from the Millard Canyon aquifer located on the tribe’s reservation, bottle it and sell it under the company’s Arrowhead and Pure Life water brands.
How much Nestle, the country’s largest bottled water company, paid the Morongo tribe for the rights to the water supply is not known, as the contract between the bottled water supplier and the tribe is not required to be disclosed.
The state has enacted severe restrictions regarding water use, aiming to conserve enough water for about 3.5 million people, or about 9 percent of the state’s population, but because the water plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation, local water agencies do not have any control over the water plant.
Nestle also doesn’t have to report how much water it takes from the water basin because of the plant’s location on the reservation. Many say this is a point of concern, especially since water is a limited resource in the state.
“Why is it possible to take water from a drought area, bottle it and sell it?” said Linda Ivey, a Palm Desert, California, real estate appraiser.
“It’s hard to know how much is being taken,” she said. “We’ve got to protect what little water supply we have.”
Many California officials agree. Some have lent their support to one local water district’s unsuccessful attempts to revoke the Morongo tribe’s rights to the water supply, since the water in Millard Canyon had been used to supply water to locals in Cabazon until the rights were sold to the tribe for $3 million in the early 2000s.
Officials from the Cabazon Water District said the volume of water in the aquifer is declining rapidly, as more water is being pumped out than is flowing back in from the snow melt from the San Bernardino Mountains. They also argue that access to the water supply was not supposed to be sold in the U.S. bottled water market, which saw revenues of roughly $12.2 billion in 2013, according to statistics from the Beverage Marketing Corporation.
For years The Desert Sun, the Palm Springs, California-based newspaper that first reported this story, has asked Nestle for a tour of the bottling plant on the reservation. The Morongo tribe has also reportedly dodged media requests for tours of the plant, so the situation at the water basin isn’t entirely clear, and there are no answers to questions such as how much water is being pumped out of the ground annually and how much the water supply has decreased in recent years.
While access to the plant has been closed to the masses and media, water researcher Peter Gleick, who is also the president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, was granted a tour of Millard Canyon several years ago. Gleick said he noticed during his tour that vegetation near the basin had largely died — likely because the water stream’s flow had dwindled — which is why Gleick recommended an assessment of the ecosystem be carried out.
Whether such an assessment has occurred has not been confirmed, but Gleick was doubtful that it had.
“Surface water is so rare and the biological communities around these oases are so unique that these kinds of bottling plants in the desert should give us pause,” Gleick said. “If they weren’t pumping, the volume that they’re taking out would be going into either recharging groundwater or providing some surface flows.”
One reason people are so concerned about Nestle taking water from this region in particular, Gleick said, is because water is already so scarce in the basin.
“If you had the same bottling plant in a water-rich area, then the amount of water bottled and diverted would be a small fraction of the total water available,” he said. “But this is a desert ecosystem. Surface water in the desert is exceedingly rare and has a much higher environmental value than the same amount of water somewhere else.”
Though many California residents have expressed concerns about large corporations selling already limited supplies of water and about the potential environmental impacts of depleting an aquifer, proponents of Nestle’s decision to tap the spring say the environment is being well cared for and the water plant is giving an economic boost to the region.
“Morongo’s successful partnership with Nestle Waters North America provides over 250 local jobs through the operation of a sustainable water-bottling plant that provides water for human consumption only. As responsible stewards of the environment, Morongo works carefully with Nestle to monitor the plant operations and conduct recharge and other environmental programs to ensure that these water resources remain healthy and reliable for future generations,” said Michael Fisher, a spokesman for the Morongo tribe.
In an emailed statement to The Desert Sun, a spokesperson for Nestle added, “We proudly conduct our business in an environmentally responsible manner that focuses on water and energy conservation. Our sustainable operations are specifically designed and managed to prevent adverse impacts to local area groundwater resources, particularly in light of California’s drought conditions over the past three years.”
Until access to the aquifer is opened to the public and the full effects of the Nestle water plant on the aquifer can be determined, it’s difficult to ascertain whether Nestle and the Morongo tribe are truly doing all they can to ensure there is a minimal impact on the environment. However, Allen Christensen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that even if a decline in water levels is found, it could be due to many years of drought and not necessarily a company pumping too much water out of the ground.
“Historically, there have been very large swings in the Cabazon basin directly related to climate swings, wet periods and dry periods,” Christensen said, adding that water levels fell in the 1960s and 1970s, before increasing during the 1980s when the region saw a lot of precipitation.
Since 2000, the hydrologist said, the well’s levels have been dropping due to drought conditions, which is why water levels are low now.