San Bernadino forest. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

Once, California didn’t have to worry so much about water. But now, of course, the state is in the midst of a historic drought. It doesn’t help much that the state has let hundreds of water permits expire—including one for a bottled water company owned by Nestlé, that pumped out 25 million gallons from California last year.

That would be Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, one of the top-selling water brands in the West. In 1852, when Gilbert Ellis Bailey, “Professor of Geology, University of Southern California; formerly Professor Analytic Chemistry, State University of Nebraska,” visited the Arrowhead Hot Springs, in the San Bernardino forest of Southern California, he enthused not just about the hot water but the cold—the “sparking streams of purest water, gushing from eternal springs that tumble and leap over leagues and among the boulders.”

Those springs are still flowing, with water pure enough that Nestlé bottles and sells it under the Arrowhead brand. But, as the drought in California stretches into what seems like eternity, it’s no longer so clear that the water will hold out for that long. In theory, the National Forest service is monitoring the water use in these mountains. But, as the Desert Sun reports, there are hundreds of expired water permits that are still being used to gather water. Nestlé’s expired in 1988. The company simply kept on paying the government a $524 annual permit fee and collecting water to bottle and sell.

In this spot, the water has always been part of the attraction. Arrowhead Springs takes its name from the Arrowhead geological monument, a natural formation of an arrow pointing down the mountainside, and it’s easy to imagine that the arrow points directly to the hot springs below.

Old camp at Arrowhead. (Photo: C.C. Pierce, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Bailey visited, a hotel had already opened on the site to take advantage of the hot waters, but he described the cold waters as an equally valuable resource:

There is an abundance of pure, cold, soft water bubbling up from the rocks, and from the mountain sides above the hotel spring belt, sufficient to supply a city. The cold springs are one of the most valuable of all the many assets with which Nature has endowed this Little Wonderland of Good Things. They are not only good waters but like the hot springs they are exceptionally good…they are remarkably pure, clear, colorless, sweet waters, containing scarcely any minerals in solutions. 

By 1909, the Arrowhead Springs Company started bottling it. And even after the government started regulating the water’s use, no one was much concerned with how much the company (whose successor was bought by Nestlé in 1987) took from the springs. The most recent, long-expired permit, the Desert Sun reports, did not require any reporting of the volume of water siphoned from the stream. Nestlé says that it watches the water and takes less in dry years. But with no one keeping watch, under current drought conditions, it really would be a wonder if the water kept flowing, forever.