As California was in the middle of a serious drought in 2015, the Desert Sun newspaper dropped a bombshell report claiming Nestlé Waters North America had basically been draining California’s water supply in the San Bernardino Forest with little or no regulation.
Nestle Waters North America holds a longstanding right to use this water from the national forest near San Bernardino. But the U.S. Forest Service hasn't been keeping an eye on whether the taking of water is harming Strawberry Creek and the wildlife that depends on it. In fact, Nestle's permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988. It hasn't been reviewed since, and the Forest Service hasn't examined the ecological effects of drawing tens of millions of gallons each year from the springs.
Even with California deep in drought, the federal agency hasn't assessed the impacts of the bottled water business on springs and streams in two watersheds that sustain sensitive habitats in the national forest. The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues, and of a regulatory system in California that allows the bottled water industry to operate with little independent tracking of the potential toll on the environment.
That investigative article prompted the California Water Board to begin to seriously investigate how much water Nestlé North America was actually pumping and the results are in—Nestlé was pumping an estimated 54 million gallons more than their permit allowed. From NPR:
California regulators say Nestle may have to stop collecting a large portion of the water it bottles from the San Bernardino National Forest, because it lacks the legal permits for millions of gallons of water. Nestle sells the water under the Arrowhead label.
The State Water Board says that of the 62.6 million gallons of water that Nestle says it extracted from the San Bernardino spring each year on average from 1947 to 2015, the company may only have a right to some 8.5 million gallons. Those numbers come from a nearly two-year investigation.
How did Nestlé obtain these permits to one of California’s most precious resources? They claimed it came with the territory when they bought the Arrowhead Springs Hotel way, way, way back in the day:
Water from the headwaters of Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest has been bottled since the late 1800s — and Nestle had told California regulators that the claim to the water by the original owner of the Arrowhead Springs Hotel had extended through the years to the Swiss multinational.
Water Board officials did not agree, saying that while the hotel's use was riparian — taking place at the water's origin — Nestle couldn't convert that to an "appropriative use."
In fact, according to the original Desert Sun report in 2015, Nestlé’s permit to pump expired in 1998 and was never officially renewed at all. Does anyone really believe it is reasonable that the original intent of the water permit for the hotel would be that a mega multinational corporation based in Switzerland would have free reign to pump 64 million gallons of water while California’s 40+ million residents are conserving water while the state is in a long-term drought?
Nestlé has 60 days to respond and submit a compliance plan. Stay tuned. In the meantime, these images of California in recent years show just how extreme drought conditions have been.