As a privileged academic, the appearance of bottled [so-called ‘mineral-’] water in front me – right next to the obligatory bowl of mints and convenient pad and paper – is a mandanity of attending conferences and workshops in far-away places. Indeed, in hot places like Arizona, where most of my research on water and politics has taken place, the bottle rarely survives unopened. Even as I gratefully glug it down, the irony is not lost on me.

At one such event, while someone reported gravely of the burgeoning water crisis in California, I found myself reading the label on my complimentary thirst-quencher. “ARROWHEAD,” it read, “Mountain Spring Water…Pure Quality…EST. 1894.” I turned the flimsy plastic bottle to read the small-print on the reverse. It turns out that Arrowhead are a division of Nestlé, the global food and beverage company, and their product is sourced “only from carefully selected mountain springs” at a number of locations in the western U.S.: mostly in – you guessed it – California.

For more than four years, California has been experiencing an unprecedented drought. Reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, plummeting reservoir levels and unregulated groundwater use in the agricultural regions of the state have led to the imposition of mandatory restrictions on water. But not for Nestlé, so it seems.

The spring from which Arrowhead takes it’s name is near San Bernardino, California, on publicly-owned land managed by the federal U.S. Forest Service. Nestlé was granted a permit to pipe water from the mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling in 1978, an operation which has continued to this day. Last year it piped 36 million (US) gallons. However, last year it came to light that the Forest Service permit expired in 1988 and has not been renewed in the 28 years since.

The agency describes the San Bernardino National Forest as “southern California’s outdoor year-around recreation destination,” which also provides “valuable watershed protection.” The land was set aside in 1907 for the conservation of natural resources including trees, minerals, livestock range, recreation, wildlife and water.

As reported in the Desert Sun newspaper, amidst public outcry, the Forest Service has recently taken up the permit issue and is considering whether to allow Nestlé to continue operating its wells and water pipelines in the forest for a further five years. Until 2nd May, the agency is accepting public comments at “open house” meetings.

Open house meetings are one of a number of approaches to ‘public engagement’ recommended in the regulatory guidance on environmental permitting in the U.S.. They typically entail a number of discussion stations with ‘educational’ display boards, manned by agency staff who issue ‘comment’ forms for citizens to complete and submit. As I have discovered with my own research on mining on National Forest land in Arizona, however, this type of meeting can be a flashpoint for those members of the public who seek to engage in more immediate debate and voice their opinions on the proposals.

Such an approach essentially works to dissipate collective (or ‘mob’?) sentiment at public meetings, and precludes the expression of ‘passions’ and ‘opinions’ in favour of ‘substantive’ input in the form of written comments. In this frame, only those comments which correspond in a rationalist scientific sense are recognised. As this is a standard to which many members of the public do not meet, they are effectively excluded. Consequently, these antagonistic energies are either subdued or deflected into other spaces of engagement, such as the media or the courts.

While such ruptures are perhaps still to come in the case of San Bernardino, the apparently instrumental relationship between the state, science, and corporations has been highlighted by those opposed to Nestlé’s water permit. With no financial resources to conduct their own independent hydrological investigations of the impacts of the withdrawals upon the surrounding watershed, the Forest Service is required to use scientific consultants paid for by the proponent.

Disapproval at this apparent conflict of interests in relation to the Arrowhead Springs mirrors that voiced in southern Arizona, where consultants under the employ of a Canadian mining company used a low resolution model in determining the probable impacts of excavating an open-cast copper mine in the Coronado National Forest. Just as in San Bernardino, irreconcilable local values are placed on the downstream habitats, species, landscapes and recreational and cultural resources. Despite the claims for ‘public engagement’ made by the Forest Service, such resources, and their value to local people, do not register in their impact assessments.  Such values lie outside (beyond…beneath…above?) their level of scientific abstraction.

The power that huge corporations such as Nestlé wield over governments and institutions operates at many levels. They are able to exert economic influence over politicians so that they do not act to legislate for what appear to us to be glaring contradictions that privilege the accumulators of global capital and expose local subjects to ever more risk. In so doing the structures of funding, regulation, methodologies and discourses by which state agencies operate remain unchanged. Thus situations such as those which exist in the San Bernardino and Coronado National Forests arise, where what constitutes valid knowledge and the scope of possible outcomes are predetermined by companies and those whose interests are attached to them.

By such means the enactment democracy in forums such as open house meetings is hollowed out of all meaning. By such means academic institutions continue to pay public money to companies like Nestle so that scholars like me can chug down ‘mineral’ water at conferences rather than walking 30 yards to a tap. I will try to remember this next time, but it is hot over there.

P.S. If you Google ‘California Drought’, guess what appears at the top of the list.