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The Government Is Being Sued For Letting Nestlé Bottle Drought-Stricken California’s Water

The US Forest Service is being sued for allowing Nestlé to siphon water from San Bernardino National Forest by way of an expired permit from 1988.
Photo via Flickr user Steven Depolo

Shit just got real for Smokey Bear and the rest of his woodland homies.

Three environmental organizations just sued the US Forest Service for allowing Nestlé to bottle water from California's drought-ridden national forest.

If you drink Arrowhead water, you may be drinking H2O that comes from Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest—water that has been siphoned without a legal permit. The lawsuit brought by the environmentalists—including the Story of Stuff Project, the Courage Campaign Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity—claims that the last time Nestlé had a valid permit to extract said water was in 1988, when it expired.


READ: Water Kleptos Are the Bleakest Part of California's Drought

Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity said, "It's inexcusable for the Forest Service to allow this piping system to continue year after year without a permit or any review of how it's impacting wildlife or local streams."

Nestlé claims that it is legally extracting the water because it has applied to renew the water-use permit. The company explained in a statement that under current Forest Service policy and regulation, it is authorized to transmit water across national forest lands under the terms of its original permit while the "renewal application is processed."

We can only ask this: has the renewal process really been ongoing since 1988?

To add insult to injury, Nestlé seems to be paying 1988—or maybe it's 1888—prices for the right to siphon the water. According to LA Weekly, "Nestlé pays only $524 a year to pull as many as 28 million gallons of water a year out of the forest."

Anderson is not buying it: "California is in the middle of its worst drought in centuries and the wildlife that rely on Strawberry Creek, including Southwestern willow flycatchers and numerous amphibians, are seeing their precious water siphoned away every day . . . . The forest and the wildlife that live there deserve better."

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California, of course, is suffering from a drought of Biblical proportions. Avocados are shriveling; almonds are kaput. The forest in question—Strawberry Creek—is not doing well, with water levels "at record lows."

Nestlé seems less than repentant. When Mother Jones asked them if they would stop bottling California water, CEO Tim Brown replied, "Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would." Brown further says the amount of water used at the company's five California bottling plants—about 1.9 million gallons per day—is not contributing to California's drought. According to Mother Jones, he wrote earlier this year: "To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses."

Of course, golf courses in California—like everyone else—are regulated and have been cutting back on their water usage, per the law. And according to the Audobon Society, Brown's numbers are off: watering the average golf course takes about 312,000 gallons per day.

In any event, the parties will have their day in court. The US government will then be able to explain to us exactly why it is allowing Nestlé to extract water from the drought-stricken forests of California—and why that permit was never properly renewed.