After the Palm Springs Desert Sun revealed in March that Nestlé Waters North America, the largest bottling company in the country, had been allowed to pump water from drought-stricken San Bernardino National Forest since 1988 with a permit extension issued without oversight, the U.S. Forest Service promised to look into it.
Three public interest groups did not want to wait for what promised to be a long process of fact-finding, input-gathering and stakeholder negotiations. They sued (pdf) the Forest Service on Tuesday, seeking a halt to water diversions that occur at 11 locations at or near Strawberry Creek.
“It’s basically an unpermitted use, an unlawful use,” Lisa Belenky, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Desert Sun. The group, along with the Story of Stuff Project and the Courage Campaign Institute, accused Nestlé’s bottling arm, Arrowhead Springs, in U.S. District Court of tapping into the creek illegally to the detriment of the environment.
There has never been an environmental assessment of bottling at Strawberry Creek.
The groups argued that the 1988 special permit Nestlé operated under required the company to be in compliance with federal and state environmental laws. Since the permit has been extended annually, for a fee of $524, without any review, there is no basis for asserting that compliance. They also argued that the permit doesn’t actually convey water rights to the company and that “Nestlé has never been the valid holder of the Permit.”
Beyond the technical aspects of legal compliance, the lawsuit alleges, Nestlé is destroying the fragile environment. “Removal of large amounts of water at the highest elevations of the watershed is having an environmental impact at the well, borehold, and tunnel sites as well as throughout the entire downstream watershed,” the suit says.
Nestlé CEO Tim Brown, in a San Bernardino Sun op-ed, minimized the effect that bottling efforts have. The five plants the company operates in California use just 705 million gallons of water a year, which is about what two average golf courses use.
Although the amount of water used at Strawberry Creek is small, that doesn’t mean water drawn for bottling doesn’t have an impact, especially on the immediate surrounding environment. And no one seems to be monitoring that.
The feds manage around 1,500 permits in the San Bernardino National Forest and 360 of those are expired in the region. While Nestlé has avoided scrutiny over the years, the Forest Service reviewed more than 700 water permits held by cabin-dwellers since the mid-2000s. The agency compelled dozens of owners to stop drawing water from Barton Creek, forcing them to dig wells or buy tanks and truck in their water.