A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the U.S. Forest Service, alleging the agency allowed Nestlé to pump millions of gallons of water from California's San Bernardino National Forest without a permit — a move that activist groups say is harming the environment as the state faces a historic drought.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff Project, and the Courage Campaign Institute filed the federal suit on Tuesday, calling for an immediate halt to Nestlé's water pipeline at Strawberry Creek. The water is bottled and sold under Nestlé's Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water brand.
An investigation by the Desert Sun in March found that while Nestlé, the largest bottled water company in the U.S., holds water rights to the area, its permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988. Since it has not been renewed, the U.S. Forest Service hasn't examined the ecological impact of Nestle's removal of tens of millions of gallons of water each year, the paper reported.
The findings prompted protest and anger from some Southern California residents. Starbucks announced it would move its bottled water operations out of California.
The Forest Service in April said it was examining the issue as a priority. The chairman of Nestlé Waters North America later that month said the company's bottling operation in California is not contributing to the state's drought.
"Nestlé Waters operates five California bottling facilities, using a total of 705 million gallons of water per year," Tim Brown wrote. "To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses."
Brown also said it was inaccurate to say the permit had expired — it remained under review and therefore valid until it was formally rejected by the Forest Service.
In their suit, the three groups say the water taken by Nestlé from the watershed, plus the drought conditions, have reduced the wildlife and habitat the region can support. By allowing Nestlé to continue piping out water without reviewing the environmental impact, the groups said the Forest Service is not following its own policies. The suit also alleges that Nestlé's permit was never valid.
The Courage Campaign's Eddie Kurtz in a statement called Nestlé's actions morally bankrupt and illegal.
"In the spring, we asked Nestlé to do the right thing, and they threw it back in our faces, telling Californians they’d take more of our water if they could," he said. "The US Forest Service has been enabling Nestlé’s illegal bottling in the San Bernardino National Forest for 27 years, and it has to stop. Our government won’t stand up to them, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.”