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Essential California: Environmentalists fight to shut down Arrowhead bottled water pipeline

Water trickles down the slope near a pipeline that BlueTriton uses for the bottled water brand Arrowhead.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 21, and I’m Ben Poston, filling in for Justin Ray.

Here’s a question I’ve often pondered: Where exactly does Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water come from?

Before the ubiquitous plastic bottles hit the shelves of your local grocery store, one source of that water bubbles up from springs in the San Bernardino Mountains. Collected by a system of tunnels and boreholes, the water flows 4.5 miles downhill through a stainless steel pipeline into a tank. From there, it’s eventually trucked to a bottling plant and then to your neighborhood retailer.

But environmentalists say the pipeline doesn’t belong in the San Bernardino National Forest and is removing precious water that would otherwise flow in Strawberry Creek, my colleague Ian James reports. After fighting for years, activists are hoping California regulators will finally order BlueTriton Brands — the company that took over bottling from Nestlé last year — to drastically scale back its operation in the national forest.

Amanda Frye, one of the leading activists, said it rankles her that a company is profiting by taking water from public land while Californians are being asked to conserve.

“I have friends that are collecting water in their shower in pitchers,” Frye said. “We’re under a state drought emergency.”

Last year, California water regulators issued a draft order telling Nestlé, which ran the operation at the time, to “cease and desist” taking much of the water. The staff of the State Water Resources Control Board announced the order after determining the company had been diverting far more water than it had rights to.

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(Arrowhead bottled water comes from 11 spring sites across California, as well as one spring in Colorado and another in British Columbia, according to the company. The source north of San Bernardino is the only one located in a national forest.)

So how much water does the operation collect from the San Bernardino Mountains each year?

In 2020, 58 million gallons flowed through that pipeline. But state investigators concluded the company could legally divert only up to about 2.4 million gallons of surface water per year, plus some as-yet-undetermined amount of “percolating groundwater.” If the order is eventually approved by the state water board, the company would be required to immediately stop “all unauthorized diversions.”

BlueTriton Brands has challenged the state’s draft order and requested a hearing. Once a hearing officer rules on the draft cease-and-desist order, the matter will go before the state water board for a decision.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Omicron has left testing labs overwhelmed, delaying results. “We had other waves in L.A. County, but this has surpassed all of them,” said Jennifer Dien Bard, director of clinical microbiology and virology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “We’ve doubled, if not more, the volume we had just a few months ago.” Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Marty Roberts, one half of a beloved L.A. lounge act, dies at 89. Marty & Elayne. Their names bring a smile for thousands of Angelenos and visitors who have spent a night at the Dresden Room in Los Feliz. Six nights a week, for almost 40 years, the quirky, eclectic lounge duo produced beautiful, if sometimes odd, covers of Sinatra, the Bee Gees, Santana … and Ricky Martin. Sadly, it was announced this week that Marty Roberts died of cancer Jan. 13. He was 89. A cameo in the 1996 film “Swingers” made Marty & Elayne famous, and as the crowds grew, “they went with it, veering into almost experimental passages,” reporter RJ Smith wrote for The Times. “The Dresden was a safe space, and no two nights were the same. They wore matching jumpsuits with space-age flair. The married couple never seemed part of a wave of hipster kitsch; instead, the times had finally come back around to them.” Amen. (The Dresden holds a special place for me: My wife and I had our second date there in 2016 as Marty & Elayne played on.) Los Angeles Times

Marty Roberts, right, and his wife and musical partner Elayne.
(Los Angeles Times)

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Biden is stuck with a divided party. After one year in office, it seems that President Biden is hitting dead ends everywhere he looks. And it’s not just obstructionist conservatives. “The desires of the Democratic center — transformational spending on social programs, tackling climate change and combating Republican efforts to limit voting — are not shared by all Democrats in the Senate,” Noah Bierman reports. Los Angeles Times

Sen. Joe Manchin III in a Capitol hallway.
Sen. Joe Manchin III leaves his Capitol office in December after speaking with President Biden about his long-stalled domestic agenda.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Lithium might not be a gold rush for California. But it could be for people near the Salton Sea. Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to make it easier for energy companies to tap into an enormous underground reserve of lithium that’s in high demand for the rechargeable batteries needed to power carbon-free cars. Newsom is proposing $350 million in tax credits that lithium entrepreneurs can apply for, columnist George Skelton writes. Los Angeles Times

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

How a supply-chain crunch, limited security and idle trains made cargo in L.A. vulnerable to thieves. “A train at rest is a train at risk,” said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations for CargoNet, a company that tracks cargo thefts. “There’s a backlog of getting trains back to the West Coast from the East Coast. You got a lot of different supply-chain issues.” Railroad company Union Pacific employs only a handful of officers to protect its tracks in the state, but company officials said they have been working with the LAPD, California Highway Patrol and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to combat the thefts. The company has also deployed drones and is erecting fences. Los Angeles Times

Debris litters Union Pacific train tracks in Lincoln Heights.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Police shoot, kill armed man at San Francisco airport. After receiving reports of a man armed with two guns, police were called to the airport’s international terminal around 7:30 a.m., according to airport spokesman Doug Yakel. Officers “attempted to de-escalate the situation, but the suspect continued to demonstrate threatening behavior,” Yakel said. Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

As PG&E probation nears end, judge calls company a ‘continuing menace.’ With PG&E Corp. nearing the end of a five-year felony probation, the judge supervising the company said the company went on a “crime spree” even as he tried to rehabilitate it. “While on probation, PG&E has set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians,” wrote U.S. District Judge William Alsup. Bloomberg

A line of blue Pacific Gas & Electric trucks
Pacific Gas & Electric is about to emerge from five years of felony probation.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

L.A. County calls for independent health study of massive natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon. People living and working in the surrounding community suffered from nausea, nosebleeds, skin rashes and breathing problems, and thousands of families had to evacuate their homes. Now, more than six years later, L.A. County health officials are calling for an independent study into the health effects on residents near the San Fernando Valley’s Aliso Canyon, which in 2015 was the site of the largest natural gas blowout in U.S. history. Los Angeles Times

Bestselling ‘Maid’ author Stephanie Land isn’t done with poverty. Stephanie Land, the author of the 2019 memoir “Maid” that inspired a Netflix series, discusses the reaction to the hit show and her next project. Land will join the L.A. Times Book Club conversation virtually Tuesday with Times reporter Paloma Esquivel. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 74, mostly sunny San Diego: 63 San Francisco: 65 San Jose: 66 Fresno: 58 Sacramento: 64

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Mike Carson:

I headed to California two hours after graduating from Texas A&M University. I just headed west until the freeway ended in Santa Monica. I found a studio apartment in Venice and slowly got my bearings. This was 1984, and smoggy skies were the norm. One night, in my third month in Venice, I awoke to a Santa Ana wind. The next morning as I walked outside, I looked northward and saw a mountain range where before had just been smog. And that was how I discovered the Santa Monica Mountains.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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