The network of clear streams comprising California’s Strawberry Creek run down the side of a steep, rocky mountain in a national forest two hours east of Los Angeles. Last year Nestlé siphoned 45m gallons of pristine spring water from the creek and bottled it under the Arrowhead Water label.
Though it’s on federal land, the Swiss bottled water giant paid the US Forest Service and state practically nothing, and it profited handsomely: Nestlé 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 Nestlé’s activities left Strawberry Creek “impaired” while “the current water extraction is drying up surface water resources”.
Meanwhile, the state is investigating whether Nestlé 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 Nestlé 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 Nestlé, grassroots opposition, and government officials. At stake is control of the nation’s freshwater supply and billions in profits as Nestlé bottles America’s water then sells it back in plastic bottles. Those in opposition, such as Amanda Frye, an author and nutritionist, increasingly view Nestlé as a corporate villain motivated by “greed”.
“These are people who just want to make money, but they’ve already dried up the upper Strawberry Creek and they’ve done a lot of damage,” she said. “They’re a foreign corporation taking our natural resources, which makes it even worse.”
Critics characterize Nestlé 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 what’s behind the Forest Service’s Strawberry Creek decision to allow Nestlé to pull water from federal land, said Michael O’Heaney, director of the Los Angeles-based environmental group Story of Stuff, which has sued to stop Nestlé.
Should water be commodified and sold by private industry, or is it a basic human right?
“You have Nestlé spouting this idea of shared benefits and ‘We’re in it for the communities’, but when you see the way they operate on the ground – they’re very skilled at cozying up with legislators, state officials … and getting their way,” he said.
Nestlé 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 America’s water and an eco-friendly “healthy hydration” company aiming to save the world’s freshwater supply.