As California continues its third year of drought conditions, water is being pumped from a spring in Millard Canyon located in the San Gorgonio Pass. The Desert Sun reported on Monday, July 14, that Nestle has been drawing water from the spring for over a decade, but concern is on the rise as conditions worsen and the water is declining.
The bottling plant which produces Arrowhead spring water and Nestle Pure Life, owned by Nestle Waters North America Inc., is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' reservation. The company leases the land from the tribe; which in turn gets a profit from the operation.
About 10 years ago the Cabazon Water District sold the water rights to the Morongo tribe. They bought it for $3 million dollars. Soon after this purchase the tribe announced its deal with Nestle owned Perrier Group to bottle Arrowhead water there. The tribe collects funds for every gallon of water that is drawn from the ground.
The Raw Story reported that because the Morongo tribe is a sovereign nation, they do not have to submit the same paperwork as others would and do not get monitored by water agencies. Nestle has not submitted paperwork on how much underground water has been taken since 2009.
The 2009 Nestle Waters report, which is based on 2008 data, stated they pumped 757 acre-feet from the wells. Reports from other years compiled by San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency stated that water being drawn from two wells in the canyon ranged from 1,366 acre-feet in 2002 to 595 acre-feet in 2005. Accounts from the agency estimated that the company extracts about 750 acre-feet a year. This is about 244 million gallons a year.
In 2013 the Morongo tribe submitted reports that stated 598 acre-feet of groundwater was pumped from the Millard Canyon, and that 3 acre-feet of water was diverted. This is about 200 million gallons a year; which, reports state would be enough water for 400 homes in the Coachella Valley.
The demand for bottled water continues to grow. Data released by Beverage Marketing Corporation shows that in 2003 the water market showed 6.2 billion gallons and $8.5 billion in revenue. In 2012 that number jumped to 10 billion gallons and $12.2 billion in revenues. Nestle is the largest bottled water company in the US.
Having bottling plants like this in the desert area could be biologically threatening. Researcher Peter Gleick, was allowed to visit Millard Canyon several years ago to observe the area. Taking water from the canyon means that less water will flow through streams that eventually go downhill and recharge aquifers.
"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," said Gleick. "If they weren't pumping, the volume that they're taking out would be going into either recharging groundwater or providing some surface flows."
Gleick’s book, ‘Bottled and Sold’, describes the bottling plant which is larger than seven football fields. The plant produces more than 1 billion bottles of water a year.
"The reason this particular plant is of special concern is precisely because water is so scarce in the basin," Gleick said. "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. 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."
The Morongo tribe has defended the bottling operation. In an email statement tribe spokesman Michael Fisher said, "The Morongo Band of Mission Indians is a sovereign nation with a long history of caring for the environment and of environmental stewardship as it relates to air quality, local habitats and tribal water resources," Fisher said. "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."