Monday, September 26, 2016

Arrowhead Water: Of Mountains, Indians & Helicoptors

Erected in the 1920s, this Indian pointed the way to the waters and resort
In the Western U.S. if you drink bottled water it’s very likely Arrowhead. Though labeled as Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, few people realize that there is an actual Arrowhead Mountain from whence the water flows, and yes, it is actually mountain spring water. I was asked to visit the Arrowhead bottled water facility in Ontario, California, and see first hand one of the spring sites perched high atop the mountain.

To set the stage: Arrowhead water is 122 years old as of 2016, though the water emanating from the mountain has been around much longer, obviously. 1810 was the first known mention of the Arrowhead thermal springs by Spanish Padres, who called it Agua Caliente. The thermal springs soon attracted the attention of developers and the site was commercially developed in 1864, originally as a small wooden structure that offered bathing in the thermal waters, and by the 1890s a proper three-story hotel was built which morphed into a health resort. 
Early  Arrowhead water packs
Common at the time, water-based health resorts and sanitariums capitalized on “taking the waters,” including drinking plenty of mineral water straight from the source, and daily baths in the water. Of course it didn't hurt the marketing campaign that there were Indian legends about Arrowhead; that Spanish priests utilized the water, and that a clearly defined arrowhead was, and is still, on the mountainside pointing to the water. The resort was one of the elite places for Hollywood celebs to escape to in the 1920s and 1930s. Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and many others hung out at the hotel. Today this is all private property with no public access, though the new owners of the resort might be giving tours of the palatial old hotel…someday.

The springs are at various points in the mountain, though the thermal springs still flow at the base of the mountain down by the hotel. Clearly visible from the city of Ontario and even more visible from the helicopter ride up, the arrowhead on the mountain is actually de-composing granite. I visited Tunnel #2, located at 5,400 feet up the mountain and the only way to access it was via helicopter. I landed on a small patch of dirt and made my way though thick underbrush down to the site, a staggeringly uninteresting grey door with three locks on it and a stainless steel pipe coming from the site. There are multiple access doors like this on the mountain and provide security as, once inside the door it’s about 60 feet into the mountain where the water is captured. The water is drawn into a pipeline made of food grade stainless steel and snakes its way 17 miles down to the base of the mountain where it is loaded onto trucks and taken to the nearby facility for bottling.

One of the tunnel doors. You can see the seepage of water below the door
"This is a fractured-granite spring," says Larry Lawrence, Natural Resource Manager for Arrowhead who accompanied me to the site. As is clearly evident from the mountain, the various sizes of granite around us, from small chunks the size of your hand to monolithic portions, demonstrate the natural minerals from the rock that the water picks up as it makes its way through the mountain. Protecting a water source is crucial and in addition to the locking doors, each with a rotating system of locks, each Arrowhead spring site is monitored for VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air. It’s less about human intervention – it’s near impossible for anyone to get to the sites – but for animal intrusion and air pollution levels.

Standing at tunnel #2
Back down on terra firma I toured the Arrowhead plant which, when first built, was the largest bottled water plant in the U.S. What’s amazing about most bottled water plants is the complexity of the operation, something the vast majority of people never see. Sure, it seems simple - put water into a bottle, sell it and you’re done. But the UV treatment, packaging, preform molding of the bottles, transportation, testing and shipping of the whole thing runs seamlessly with high tech equipment operating at near breakneck speed and pinpoint precision. Surprisingly there are 200 quality checks daily at this plant. “It's not that people don't believe it, it's that they just don't think about water going through that many tests,” Lawrence tells me. “You turn on the tap and water comes out - no one thinks about exactly how water gets to you.” Behind a glassed office one tech was testing multiple samples of water, decked out in gloves, mask and headgear so as to keep the room sanitized. The Arrowhead plant was built to be self-sufficient - once bottled the product is placed directly onto a truck and off it goes.

View from the helicopter: You can clearly see the arrowhead on the mountain, and the resort in the lower left
Near the plant is an R-PET facility, producing high quality recycled PET plastic pellets for Arrowhead, who in turn make those pellets into bottles. Millions of cases are produced at this facility and that means a lot of bottles. "We tend to be at about a 95% recycle rate across our supply chain," says Lawrence. Parent company Nestle has long supported extended producer responsibility (EPR) and feels that should apply to consumer packaging like bottled water. Recycling Reinvented, co-founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Nestlé Waters North America, promotes state EPR legislation, which would shift the costs to recycle packaging from taxpayers to producers. In essence, Arrowhead is willing to assume the financial aspect of recycling costs, though in truth, we all need to be responsible with recycling. Additionally, Arrowhead is a leading water donator; having given bottled water to over 300 organizations, and has donated 1.6 million bottles of water in the San Bernardino area alone. So the next time you see Arrowhead, you’ll have a more full understanding of the water.