For decades, Nestlé pumped millions of gallons of water out of the San Bernardino National Forest on an expired permit. The water is for their Arrowhead brand, named after the park’s Lake Arrowhead. As environmental groups organized and demanded answers as to how and why the world’s largest bottled-water company was allowed to profit off of federally owned natural resources for pennies on the $1,000,000 dollars, lawsuits and pressure was put on our government to do something. Anything. During the intense drought that California faced from 2011 to 2017, the Desert Sun began heavy-duty investigative reporting into Nestlé’s expired permits and the possible illegal abuse of what they should be allowed to draw out of the federally owned lands even with a working permit. In December of 2017, a bombshell report put Nestle on notice for pumping an “extra 54 million gallons a year” of water out of the park.
Victor Vasquez, the senior engineer who heads water rights enforcement for the California Water Resources Control Board has been tasked in the investigation, and says that he believes his final report and recommendations will come in six months. The Desert Sun reports that according to Vasquez and Nestlé, the bottle giant has stayed within the 152 acre-feet limit for their water. This is after they were warned by Vasquez in 2017 after they were busted using up 356 acre-feet of national forest space. Nestlé argues that they are legally permitted to use 271 acre-feet.
Opponents of Nestlé’s natural resource plundering say that they do not believe the company is still pumping millions of illegally gotten water into their plastic bottles for retail. Story of Stuff’s executive director Michael O'Heaney tells the Sun that "Based on the evidence gathered by the Water Board's investigators and others, we believe that Nestlé is diverting water for bottling to which it has no legal right." He and others are calling for an end to Nestlé’s permit and a quick and timely end to Vasquez’s investigation.
Nestlé’s current deal, after the drought and reports brought this crisis to a head, includes letting Nestlé drain water with the barest of environmental qualifiers. According to opponents of this process, the land management plan set up allows Nestlé to drain away surface water from Strawberry Creek, while only having to leave enough for the ecosystem to be considered “functioning at risk." A San Bernardino forest spokesman told the Sun that the good news is that “functioning at risk,” is one level up from where it was. This is kind of like saying that you’ve put out a fire in the bathroom of a home that is completely on fire.
If and when Vasquez’s investigation concludes and finds any violations, the most that Nestlé, a company with reported profits of $10.5 billion a year, faces in fines would be between $500-$1,000 a day for every day, since 2017. The highest possible fine would not even put a crick in one of their executive’s remodeling of his office. Nestlé pays $2,000 a year for the permit.