Water gets drained from national forests even after permits expire. Some of the largest numbers are in California.

RIMFOREST, Calif. – Park in a small turnout where the San Bernardino Mountains reach their crest, walk down a steep trail for 15 minutes and you’ll reach a spring. Here, on this rocky slope that faces the Southern California sun, is the spot where Strawberry Creek first bubbles to the surface. 

While the trickle is small, it produces millions of gallons each year. But for years, Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water has shunted much of it into a pipeline to pour it into trucks, drive it to a bottling plant and ship it, 16 ounces at a time, to stores across the country. 

The Palm Springs Desert Sun, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported in 2015 that Arrowhead was collecting that water via a pipeline across U.S. Forest Service land, and that while that pipeline had once operated under a valid permit, the permit had expired in 1988. All the while, Arrowhead, owned by foreign company Nestle, was using it while paying only a few hundred dollars a year. 

Since then, the state has investigated and moved to stop the water use, and a debate over the company’s legal right to the water rages on. 

But Strawberry Creek, and Arrowhead’s expired permit to siphon from it, were themselves only drops in the bucket when it came to the Forest Service’s handling of water-diversion structures all across the headwaters of the American West. 

A horizontal well is seen in San Bernardino National Forest, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Rimforest, Calif.
Water outflow pipe installed by Nestle is seen running down the hills of Strawberry Peak in its route to a holding tank where trucks take the water away for bottling, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Rimforest, Calif.
Left: A horizontal well in the San Bernardino National Forest draws on mountain spring water near Rimforest, California. Right: Water from wells on the mountain flows through a pipeline. Later, trucks will take the water away for bottling. This operation continued for years under an expired permit.
Left: A horizontal well in the San Bernardino National Forest draws on mountain spring water near Rimforest, California. Right: Water from wells on the mountain flows through a pipeline. Later, trucks will take the water away for bottling. This operation continued for years under an expired permit.
Left: A horizontal well in the San Bernardino National Forest draws on mountain spring water near Rimforest, California. Right: Water from wells on the mountain flows through a pipeline. Later, trucks will take the water away for bottling. This operation continued for years under an expired permit.
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun

A USA TODAY Network investigation of the Forest Service’s own data reveals thousands of authorized diversions on National Forests. A database of water-related structures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that thousands of users are allowed to divert or transfer water on a national forest, and many of them have permits that are long expired, or that may never expire.

‘Death by 1,000 cuts’: How the US Forest Service is losing a war over water in the West

Data provided by the Forest Service showed no record of the amount of water diverted. Reporters’ other questions for the agency went unanswered for months, but in December, days before this story published, the agency sent responses.

In response to a question about how the agency quantifies the amount of water used by these permit holders, a spokeswoman replied: “The Forest Service does not collect or have a centralized database for this information.”

The Forest Service continues to approve new permits, while advocates say the Forest Service does little to gauge the impact of these water uses. 

The impact of a warming climate, though, is clear. The Western U.S. depends on Forest Service land as the headwaters of much of its supply. As drought grips the West, these forest water diversions continue in untold amounts on forests all across the West, and across California, just as they did at Strawberry Creek. 

California, unlike some other states, now has a water law that requires users to report the amount of water diverted from its streams. 

And Forest Service documents frequently allude to the idea that it’s unknown how something like an irrigation ditch upstream might affect forest health downstream, but California, unlike some other states, has been the subject of an extensive analysis of streamflow gauges. 

Ditches, ponds and pipelines: Have you seen one of these on forest land?

And California, unlike at least some other states, has recognized its looming drought, visible in its shrinking reservoirs and the disappearing snow from its usually snowcapped northern peaks. Millions of residents are able to live entirely because of the state’s many systems to capture water from remote mountains and channel it to thirsty cities, and the state has moved to protect those supplies. A drought emergency status in many counties was expanded to be statewide in October. 

Yet in spite of these possible advantages, water diversions under expired permits like the Strawberry Creek scenario continue statewide. 

The state water-reporting law gathers data, but that data is self-reported. The agency that tracks the reports acknowledges they’re incomplete, and depends on other people to report possible violations.

The analysis of streamflow gauges shows which streams can be monitored to know the impact of stream diversions – but the problem is that it’s almost none of them. The analysis concluded 86% of the state’s major streams aren’t measured well enough.

Hugh Bialecki, president of Save Our Forest Association, reaches for water from an overflow pipe from one of the wells near Strawberry Creek, in November 2021. "Why would you be taking any water," he asks, "when the whole forest is at risk?"
Hugh Bialecki, president of Save Our Forest Association, reaches for water from an overflow pipe from one of the wells near Strawberry Creek, in November 2021. “Why would you be taking any water,” he asks, “when the whole forest is at risk?”
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun

Of all the national forests in the U.S., the five with the largest number of expired permits are in the Golden State. And in the state’s forests, these authorized uses continue as fires burn hotter and larger than ever before. 

In the San Bernardino National Forest, where Strawberry Creek still runs mostly dry, the group Save Our Forest Association opposes the water bottling operation, which is now run by a company called BlueTriton. Group president Hugh Bialecki sees that one pipeline as a sort of symbol for a much larger issue. 

“We’re in a prolonged drought, we have increased wildfires,” he said, standing in a clearing in Strawberry Canyon near one of the pipelines. “Why would you be taking any water, especially on public lands, when the whole forest is at risk?”

DIVERSIONS ALL OVER THE STATE, AS FORESTS BURN

In Ventura, at the foot of the chaparral-covered coast ranges, water is at a premium.  

The city gets about 20% of its water from wells that draw water from the Ventura River.  The river is the lifeblood not only for the city but for steelhead trout that spend their life both in the river and the ocean beyond it, and an environmental lawsuit has sought to bring the river’s uses into balance. 

A 2019 agreement in that case put new limits on how much the city can draw from those wells. In September 2021, under that agreement, the city shut down its pumping entirely for the first time. 

“If they had not shut down their wells, it is likely that the river there probably would have dried up completely in the next couple of weeks,” Ben Pitterle, the science and policy director for the environmental group behind the suit, told the Ventura County Star at the time.

Water trickles through the Ventura River on Wednesday, September 1, 2021 near Foster Park.
In this file photo, water flows over the Matilija Dam, which stands just a short way up Matilija Creek from the historic Matilija Hot Spring Property.
Left: Water trickles through the Ventura River near Foster Park in September 2021. Wells near the streambed had to be shut down to protect the river’s flow. Right: Matilija Dam, in a file photo. The river originates in creeks above here in Los Padres National Forest.
Left: Water trickles through the Ventura River near Foster Park in September 2021. Wells near the streambed had to be shut down to protect the river’s flow. Right: Matilija Dam, in a file photo. The river originates in creeks above here in Los Padres National Forest.
Left: Water trickles through the Ventura River near Foster Park in September 2021. Wells near the streambed had to be shut down to protect the river’s flow. Right: Matilija Dam, in a file photo. The river originates in creeks above here in Los Padres National Forest.
ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR

That river, though, doesn’t start in Ventura. It is formed by the forks of Matilija Creek, which rise in Los Padres National Forest. 

And in the national forest, water users typically do not face such restrictions from the Forest Service. 

The entire Los Padres forest includes authorizations for wells, pipelines and irrigation ditches, among other uses. 

About half of the forest’s 102 total permits expired at least three years ago, and most of the remaining ones show no expiration date. 

Water, though, is not in abundant supply in these high, dry hills. 

Flames whipped by Santa Ana winds pushed the Thomas Fire through the Los Padres forest and into the neighborhoods of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December 2017.

The fire raced across miles of ridgelines in a single evening, destroyed more than 500 homes in Ventura and marched all the way to the doorstep of Ventura’s city hall.

Two people died, including a Cal Fire firefighter who was trapped by flames. A longtime county firefighter told the Ventura County Star it was “​​the fastest-moving fire I have ever seen in my career.” By the time a winter storm shut it down, the 281,893 acre fire had become the largest in recorded California history. 

On the last day of 2017, as the fire was still burning, another two water-use permits in Los Padres National Forest expired. Despite that, the authorizations remained active as of mid-2021, according to the agency’s data. 

Los Padres is far from the only California forest rife with water-use authorizations.

Reporters inquired with the Forest Service about the large number of expired permits in California; the agency delayed for months before sending this response via email: 

“​​National forests in the State of California, which has a population of almost 40 million people, generally have substantially more special use authorizations than national forests in other states. Consequently, the national forests in California have more expired special use authorizations than national forests in other states.”

About this series: We asked the Forest Service what it does to protect America’s water supplies. We’re still waiting for answers.

Yet the agency’s own data conflicts with this assessment: Of the top 10 forests in the country, ranked by number of water-use authorizations, only two are in California. Yet the state is home to six of the top 10 national forests by number of expired permits.

The five national forests with the most expired permits are all in the Golden State: Shasta-Trinity, San Bernardino, Los Padres, Sierra, and Six Rivers. 

By some estimates, forest land creates 50% of the West’s drinking water, and California is no different. The water from its forested mountains supplies cities from the north to the south, via aquifers that link the Sierra and Cascades to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. 

That supply is shrinking amid drought and climate change. 

The USA TODAY Network’s analysis of Forest Service water data also used the agency’s own climate data to examine the future of water runoff.

The network’s analysis, using Forest Service data based on a conservative, relatively wet climate change scenario, concluded water yield from California’s national forests is expected to decline. 

Forest land in California may yield 2.7 million less acre-feet annually, on average, in the decades ahead, compared with recent decades. That amount is roughly equal to the entire supply of water the California Aqueduct delivers from the north to cities across Southern California each year. 

The same forces that make the forests drier are contributing to increasingly destructive wildfires. 

In the last few years, the fire risk across California’s national forests has grown to the point where the Forest Service has closed all 18 of the state’s national forests to the public during the height of fire season. In Sept. 2020, the Forest Service closed all forests due to “unprecedented” fire danger. A year later, in September 2021, all of the forests were closed again for two to three weeks due to fire risk. 

The Dixie Fire raged across the Plumas and Lassen national forests. During that same time, the Caldor Fire began on the Eldorado National Forest but jumped the rim of the Lake Tahoe basin and threatened resorts and homes across the region. 

Top and left: Firefighters with the Los Angeles County Fire Department work to put out the Caldor Fire in the Christmas Valley area of South Lake Tahoe on Aug. 31, 2021. Right: A thick layer of smoke hangs over Lake Tahoe on Sept. 3 as the fire continues to burn.
Top and left: Firefighters with the Los Angeles County Fire Department work to put out the Caldor Fire in the Christmas Valley area of South Lake Tahoe on Aug. 31, 2021. Right: A thick layer of smoke hangs over Lake Tahoe on Sept. 3 as the fire continues to burn.
Top and left: Firefighters with the Los Angeles County Fire Department work to put out the Caldor Fire in the Christmas Valley area of South Lake Tahoe on Aug. 31, 2021. Right: A thick layer of smoke hangs over Lake Tahoe on Sept. 3 as the fire continues to burn.
JASON BEAN/RGJ

Both fires did something no fire had done before, cresting the ridge of the Sierra Nevada. In a forest so dry, firefighters said, any spot fire that landed would burn.

“Everybody in fire would probably say, ‘I never thought I would see the day when fire would burn from the west side all the way to the east side of the Sierra,’” Ryan Bauer, fire management officer for the Plumas National Forest, told the Reno Gazette-Journal later that season. “But once we saw what the season looked like, it was no longer a surprise.”

The Dixie Fire, at more than 963,000 acres, became the second-largest fire in state history. (By then, Thomas Fire – which had been the largest-ever just a few years before –  had dropped to eighth on the list.)

In all those forests, water-use authorizations continue: On the Plumas forest, 16 of 73 authorizations have been expired for three years or more; on the Lassen, 8 of 38; on the Eldorado, 10 of 55.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention crews protected structures on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Junction City before the Monument Fire reached the community.
An aerial view of the McFarland Fire posted by the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 25, 2021
Left: California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention crews protected structures on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Junction City before the Monument Fire reached the community. U.S. Forest Service. Right: An aerial view of the McFarland Fire posted by the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 25, 2021.
Left: California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention crews protected structures on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Junction City before the Monument Fire reached the community. U.S. Forest Service. Right: An aerial view of the McFarland Fire posted by the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 25, 2021.
Left: California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention crews protected structures on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Junction City before the Monument Fire reached the community. U.S. Forest Service. Right: An aerial view of the McFarland Fire posted by the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 25, 2021.
U.S. Forest Service

In the far north, 81 of Shasta Trinity National Forest’s 116 water-related authorizations are expired, more than any other forest administrative unit in the United States. This summer, lightning strikes started the McFarland Fire and the Monument Fire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which burned nearly 350,000 acres combined. 

Shasta is famous for its glaciers, and is known for maintaining its iconic white snow cover through most of the year. Last winter, snowpack was 50% of normal. By August 2021, it appeared nearly bare. 

IN CALIFORNIA, WATER USERS REQUIRED TO REPORT

While the state is responsible for administering water rights, the Forest Service authorizes the structures needed for water users to divert this water from Forest Service land. The Forest Service’s responsibilities include “securing favorable conditions of water flows,” according to the Organic Act of 1897, which established the Forest Service. 

But the network’s investigation found little evidence of comprehensive efforts to secure those favorable conditions for water flows. In response to reporters’ questions about how the agency balances water uses with water preservation, a spokeswoman replied, “Except for management of congressionally designated wilderness and certain other specially designated areas, the Forest Service’s mission does not include preservation of natural resources. Rather, the Forest Service manages NFS lands for multiple uses and sustained yield of products and resources.” 

While the data provided by the Forest Service doesn’t track how much water is diverted under its permits, in California, diverters must file annual Statements of Water Diversion that provide the amount of water diverted that year, although this information is self-reported by the diverters. The main purpose of these statements is to “create a central repository for records of diversions and uses of water,” and Division of Water Rights staff “do not analyze the contents of a Statement, or research the legal water right status of the diverter at the time of receipt,” according to the State Water Resources Control Board. 

Riley Nolan, a water board engineer in the Water Rights Division, said the water board “generally has confidence in the quality of the data” that’s reported under these statements, but acknowledged that some water users still aren’t reporting their diversions. While water board staff reviews the statements to ensure completeness and reaches out to water users who file incomplete statements or fail to file, the agency relies on complaints to identify water users that may be in violation of their water rights.

Nolan said most problems with the water diversion statements can be attributed to “human error,” like reporting the measurements in the wrong unit, although there are some instances in enforcement cases where information may have been intentionally misreported. 

Conny Mitterhofer, a water board engineer in the Water Rights Division
“We have so many water rights, and we don’t necessarily have the capacity to follow up on every single one of them.

“We have so many water rights, and we don’t necessarily have the capacity to follow up on every single one of them. I think we do a good job of quality assurance and quality control for the data and following up (with water users), but it’s a significant responsibility. And we frequently rely on folks to reach out if they’re seeing an illegal diversion and water use, and filing a complaint with us, we take that very seriously and follow up on that. Because it’s really everybody’s responsibility, particularly when we’re in drought times,” said Conny Mitterhofer, also a water board engineer in the Water Rights Division. 

Mitterhofer emphasized that the main purpose of collecting the Statements of Water Diversion is to create a central place for records of water diversion. If staff has tried to follow up with a water user to get information corrected and that hasn’t happened, or a non-filer has continually failed to file, then the water board’s enforcement section may step in and open a case. 

The water board engineers also noted that there isn’t a requirement to notify the Forest Service if the water right for the user who has a Forest Service permit is revoked, or if that water user is found to be in violation of their water rights.

'YOU DON'T KNOW HOW MUCH YOU'RE SPENDING'

Across the West, it’s difficult to measure even what we don’t know about the impacts of water diversions from national forests on streams. But in California, a Nature Conservancy report found that we should be able to measure the impacts of water diversions, but we can’t, due to a large number of inactive stream gauges. 

The report found that “we have surprisingly little data about how much water is moving through our streams at any given time.” Out of over 3,600 locations in California where stream gages have been active at some point, just 54% have been active recently, according to the Nature Conservancy’s Gage Gap report. And the stream gages that are active rarely provide “the kind of rich, real-time reporting needed to manage what is arguably our state’s most precious and contentious resource,” states the report, as 86% of significant streams in California are poorly gauged. 

Kirk Klausmeyer, director of data science at the Nature Conservancy.
“If everyone took what they were allowed, the stream would run dry every year.

“It’s like trying to manage a bank account, when you don’t know how much you’re spending,” said Kirk Klausmeyer, director of data science at the Nature Conservancy.

“Often there’s more water permitted to be diverted from the stream than actually exists in the stream. And so if everyone took what they were allowed, the stream would run dry every year. So you really want to know how much people are taking, and then what you have left at the end, after all the diversions,” Klausmeyer continued. 

In San Bernardino National Forest, BlueTriton says that of the 59 million gallons it took from Strawberry Canyon in 2020, nearly 41 million gallons was “overflow” that was returned to the same watershed. But the upper portion of Strawberry Creek is “poorly gauged,” making it difficult to confirm this. 

na
USGS, Také Uda/USA TODAY NETWORK

And since Statements of Water Diversion are self-reported, having a fuller picture of stream gage data would help verify the self-reported information from water users, Klausmeyer said.

“Reporting is required, but it’s all self-reporting. So the stream gauge provides that validation that if someone said they diverted 100 acre-feet, but the stream gauges will help determine if that’s true or not,” said Klausmeyer. 

In late 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 19, which tasks state water agencies to develop a plan to address gage gaps in the state’s watersheds by prioritizing where stream gages are most needed. Notably, the agencies will create a plan for priority stream gage locations and identify funding needs to improve the existing stream gage network, but the implementation budget for SB 19 does not include funding to actually install and operate stream gages. 

“SB 19 doesn’t solve the problem right away. But it is a really great step to get more gages installed throughout the rivers and streams in California… It’s an important piece of legislation to get the state agencies thinking about where new gauges should go,” said Klausmeyer. 

A POTENTIAL THIRD YEAR OF DROUGHT

From Shasta-Trinity National Forest, water flows into the Sacramento, Pit, and McCloud Rivers, which feed Shasta Reservoir, California’s largest man-made lake. In normal precipitation years, the reservoir stores and distributes 20% of the state’s developed water, transporting water up to 450 miles away in Bakersfield.

But an unknown quantity of water is diverted from the national forest before it ever reaches Shasta Lake, and long before Bakersfield.

And these diversions are happening as Shasta Lake reaches near-record lows, and with projected water yield from the national forest expected to decrease. Shasta Lake is currently experiencing its second-worst year on record, and was at just 24% at the end of September. 

A parched Shasta Lake in summer 2021 left coves muddy, piers in peril and boat ramps high and dry.
A parched Shasta Lake in summer 2021 left coves muddy, piers in peril and boat ramps high and dry.
A parched Shasta Lake in summer 2021 left coves muddy, piers in peril and boat ramps high and dry.
Mike Chapman/Record Searchlight

Watersheds in Shasta-Trinity National Forest are projected to lose 2 million acre-feet in annual run off by 2040, compared to 2010. 

While these scenarios look ahead to 2040, the state is already experiencing a drought. Gov. Newsom declared a drought emergency in eight Southern California counties this October, extending the drought already declared in the state’s other 50 counties to encompass all of California.

“As the western U.S. faces a potential third year of drought, it’s critical that Californians across the state redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible,” Newsom said in a statement at the time. 

But as California residents go through the now-familiar steps of cutting back on shower time and letting green lawns go brown, an unknown amount is diverted long before it reaches the tap, through the water diversions from national forests. 

Just beyond a culvert, Twin Creek flows into a desert landscape surrounded by a narrow line of vegetation, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in San Bernardino, Calif.
Just beyond a culvert, Twin Creek flows into a desert landscape surrounded by a narrow line of vegetation, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in San Bernardino, Calif.
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun

Looking at a dry Strawberry Creek on a Thursday in early November, Bialecki said in the over 30 years he’s been involved with the Save Our Forest Association, he’s “never seen water beyond what we’re seeing right now.”

“We still have all of this water being piped down so that it can be put into single-use plastic bottles that add to the waste stream, and squander a precious natural resource… It’s something that we feel is ethically and morally wrong, and should be stopped,” said Bialecki. 

Follow reporter Erin Rode on Twitter at @RodeErin