January 29, 2018

How Draining the Mountains of Its Springs Became Big Business in LA

Note: This is a modified version of a piece I contributed to You can read the original here.

In 1917, the bottled spring water business was thriving so much that it warranted the opening of one of the largest bottling plants in the West at the time.

Circa 1933 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library)

And now, more than a century after first opening, the Arrowhead bottling plant near downtown Los Angeles on Washington Boulevard and Compton Avenue is one of the oldest continuously operating manufacturing facilities in LA.

When industrious Southern Californians discovered how to tap into one of our many natural resources—the unmolested riches of the San Bernardino Mountains—suddenly anyone could purchase water from our mountain springs to be bottled and shipped to the lowlands.

And thanks to Arrowhead’s aggressive marketing campaigns (which dovetailed with those promoting California as a tropical paradise that drew visitors from all over the country), that became very much the rage in the early 1900s.

That was a time when Southern Californians were fascinated with our mountain ranges and, in a fit of “mountain fever,” flocked to our mighty peaks for hiking, adventuresome trolley rides, dancing, stargazing, and more. Those with the money and the wherewithal to make the trek to our mountain resorts and retreats were romanced by the ruggedness of the Old West and intoxicated by the fresh mountain air and clear mountain creeks that seemed to run all year.

But it wasn’t just that our mountain spring water tasted better...

...because even that wouldn't have been enough to sell glass bottles of water to regular people who probably normally wouldn’t allow themselves such extravagances.

It wasn’t even enough for the water to be “pure,” since many waters at the time could have rated high in purity.

No, this water was something more than that: It was “healthful.”

Arrowhead capitalized on the popularity of drinking for health—like the tonic waters and seltzers that had become so popular in the mid-19th century—by advertising that doctors recommended its particular type of water for its mineral content (reportedly seven grains of mineral salts to the gallon).

Fortunately, some of the company’s fascinating history has been preserved...

...including the last bottle of glass before the company made the switch to plastic.

That and other artifacts had been literally gathering dust for decades in the basement and only saw the light of day again when Ms. G, a veteran Arrowhead staffer, decided to bring them upstairs...

...and put them on display in an empty space nobody was using, right next to the copy machine.

Unfortunately, though, this little makeshift museum—which includes various ephemera from when Arrowhead more broadly defined their role in the beverage business to include products like creamer and sugar, as well as ginger ale and a “champagne-style” orange soda—isn’t open to the public.

At least not yet, anyway.

But after years of drought and only one relatively wet season, should bottling and selling our local water have already gone out of vogue?

That question hit a fever pitch in October 2015, when the water level at Strawberry Creek—one of the sources the Nestlé-owned company taps into—hit a record low.

That’s also when no less than three advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that had granted a special use permit to Arrowhead in the past (actually, before the year 1914).

Apparently, the USFS has failed to properly document its approval of subsequent renewal applications—for the last 30 years.

Based on a decision from a federal judge in September 2016, Arrowhead had been able to continue to remove water from the San Bernardino Mountains—legally—until such time that the Forest Service officially revokes its permission.

Strawberry Creek ran dry for the first time—more than once—in 2017.

This past December, regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board reported that its 20-month investigation seems to show that the extraction and diversion of the water appears to be unauthorized.

The comment period on that report closes February 9, 2018.

According to Arrowhead, the company collects only water that’s naturally available at any given time at Arrowhead Springs (rather than, say, pumping into the groundwater supply). After all, it behooves the company to not let the well run dry, as it were.

Then again, that didn't stop the LADWP from draining Owens Lake after it surreptitiously acquired the water rights on the land that surrounded it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Hangover Cure Clock Tower Gets Its Tick-Tock Back
Photo Essay: The Lost Lake of the Owens Valley
Celebrating the LA Aqueduct Centennial at The Cascades

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