Nestlé faces backlash over collecting water from drought-hit California

Backlash is growing over where the world's top bottled water producer gets its supplies. Nestlé collects millions of gallons a year from springs in Southern California, an area prone to drought.

As the company tries to meet the rising demand, activists are voicing their concern. 

In the San Bernardino Mountains outside Los Angeles, an intricate maze of pipes collects and funnels tens of millions of gallons of water each year, CBS News correspondent Mireya Villareal reports. 

It's the original source for Nestlé's Arrowhead water, but the steep terrain, covered in thick brush is only easily accessible by helicopter.

Larry Lawrence, who manages this spring for Nestlé waters, brought us deep into the canyon.

"These are naturally flowing sources.  We don't pump anything, we don't siphon anything, it just naturally flows in the pipe," Lawrence said. 

Spring water collects in this tunnel and moves downhill through a pipeline.

"From top of the pipeline to the very bottom is 7.2 miles," Lawrence said.    

At the bottom, tanker trucks load and transport it to a nearby plant where they bottle the water.

The water business is booming. Bottled water sales are up nine percent over the last year, which has sent Nestlé looking for new sources to meet customer demand. Of their current 40 water sources around the country, 11 are in California -- a state dealing with long-term drought concerns.

"Every gallon of water that is taken out of a natural system for bottled water is a gallon of water that doesn't flow down a stream, that doesn't support a natural ecosystem," said Peter Gleick, author of "Bottled and Sold." 

Nestlé has faced protests over its water collection in California because of the drought and the fact that this site is on public land.  While the company takes about 30 million gallons each year, they pay just $524 to the U.S. Forest Service for the permit.

"I think it's fair to say that in this case our public agencies have dropped the ball," Gleick said. 

The Forest Service is now reviewing Nestle's permit for the first time in 30 years.  They declined our request for an interview.

Nelson Switzer is Nestle water's chief sustainability officer.

When asked whether it's fair that Nestle is making so much money off the water, Switzer said, "Nestle has water rights of course in this area. From a legal stand point, of course it's fair, from a perception standpoint, I understand why people are asking that question.  But water belongs to no one."  

Switzer says Nestlé takes its responsibility as a water steward very seriously. 

"The sustainability of the supply is paramount and if our activities were to compromise the sustainability of that supply, we would stop operating. I hope people remember that water itself is a renewable resource as long as that is managed properly, that system will be renewable forever," Switzer said. 

It may be renewable but as long as companies like Nestle make a profit off it, the debate over public natural resources will continue.