US Forest Service sued over Nestlé bottled water controversy

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

A lawsuit wants Nestlé Waters to shut down water diversion in one California forest.
A lawsuit wants Nestlé Waters to shut down water diversion in one California forest.

Related tags Water

The US Forest Service is being sued for not taking action against Nestlé Waters North America, with public interest groups saying the company is bottling water without a current permit from the San Bernardino National Forest.

Three public interest groups – The Center for Biological Diversity, The Story of Stuff Project and Courage Campaign Institute – filed “an action for declaratory and injunctive relief”​ against the Forest Service (an agency of the US Department of Agriculture) in US District Court in California.

The lawsuit moves to immediately halt Nestlé’s water diversions at multiple locations near Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest.

What’s the issue?

This issue of the company using water from this creek spawns from a report from earlier this year by the Palm Springs Desert Sun, which found that Nestlé’s permit to use the public land had expired in August 1988. No new permit was issued, yet the pumping of water continued, it said.

Water bottled from this creek goes to supply Nestlé’s Arrowhead Springs line of bottled water, according to the lawsuit.

After the report came out, the US Department of Agriculture issued a response that said until the US Forest Service makes a decision on Nestlé’s permit application, the current amended permit would remain “in full force and effect according to its terms”.

”By this letter, the Forest Service has stated its intent to allow the unpermitted activities to continue indefinitely,”​ the lawsuit states.

Rachel Doughty, attorney with Greenfire Law, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, told BeverageDaily that they are asking the court to "shut down the diversion until the Forest Service can demonstrate that it is complying with its statutory mandates to protect public resources, including habitat and wildlife."

"We think the law is clear that the Forest Service cannot allow the diversion without a valid special use permit,"​ she said. 

The next step in the lawsuit will be for the government to file an answer in about two months, Doughty said. 

Environmental concerns during a drought

With concerns about the drought in California, the lawsuit said the plaintiff parties worry that diverting water resources from the area can negatively impact the forest and creek.

“Removal of large amounts of water at the highest elevations of the watershed is having an environmental impact at the well, borehole, and tunnel sites as well as throughout the entire downstream watershed,”​ the lawsuit said.

Among parts of the environment the lawsuit said will be affected, it noted the associated vegetation and species in the area that are likely to be reduced due to the water diversions and drought.

The drainage of water from Nestlé’s diversion, it said, also impacts a linkage between the high and low parts of the mountain and flow of water.

Nestlé responds

In a statement to BeverageDaily, Nestle Waters US spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said the company wants to assure the public that the permit remains in full effect. 

"Our operations lawfully abide by the rules of the Administrative Procedure Act,"​ she said. "The permit remains in effect because the company took the proper steps to request its renewal before it became due in 1988. Permits that are timely and sufficiently requested do not expire until the reissuance of the permit has been determined by the US Forest Service."

Lazgin said while the comapny could not specifically comment on the case, she said Nestlé will "continue to abide by all relevant laws and regulations, be it federal, state of local as it relates to our operations".

Nestlé Waters chairman, president and CEO Tim Brown wrote in an opinion piece in the San Bernardino Sun that bottled water is not a contributing factor​ to the state’s drought.

He also minimized the company’s role in water use locally, saying their bottling facilities use a total of 705m gallons of water, “roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses.”

“We adhere to all local, state and federal regulations regarding our operations, all of which are in good standing, including our permit to transmit water in the San Bernardino National Forest,”​ he wrote.

He said while recent accounts said the permits have expired, there are “several hundred” other special permit holders who are under review in the San Bernardino National Forest. Brown said according to federal law, this “does not expire until the application has been finally determined by the agency.”

The US Forest District said it does not comment on pending litigation. 

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