Environmental and public interest groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Forest Service, claiming it broke federal laws by allowing Nestlé to pipe out millions of gallons of water from California’s San Bernardino National Forest. The group has alleged that the Swiss food and beverage giant has been allowed to operate on a permit that expired nearly three decades ago.
The suit filed by three plaintiffs -- Story of Stuff Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Courage Campaign Institute -- claims that Nestlé’s permit expired in 1988, but it has been still removing between 50 million and 150 million gallons of water each year from the southern Californian forest to use in its bottled water brand, Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water, the Guardian reported. The organizations have demanded the U.S. Forest Service to turn off the water spigot and conduct a permit review, which would analyze the impact of the company’s actions on the environment.
“They are taking water from a national forest that desperately needs that water,” Michael O’Heaney, executive director at the Story of Stuff, a group that advocates to clean up consumer culture, told the Guardian, adding: “The Forest Service is obligated by law to ensure the natural resources of the forest are protected.”
California is tackling a record-breaking drought, which has entered its fourth year and has led to compulsory water restrictions in the state. Earlier this year, companies including Nestlé, the Coca-Cola Co. and Starbucks Corp. were targeted by residents in the state, demanding that they stop bottling water during the drought. While Starbucks agreed to move the bottling of its Ethos brand out of the state, Tim Brown, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, wrote in an op-ed for the Sun in April that the company’s water usage in the state was minimal.
“Nestlé Waters operates five California bottling facilities, using a total of 705m gallons of water per year. To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses,” Brown wrote.
The lawsuit named Regional Forester Randy Moore and San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron as the defendants, USA Today reported. However, Nestlé Waters North America was not named in the suit.
Eddie Kurtz, environmental director at the Courage Campaign Institute, said, according to the Guardian: “We believe that Nestlé’s actions aren’t just morally bankrupt, they are illegal,” adding: “Quite simply we’d like to see Nestlé stop taking California’s public water and turning it into private profit when there is no water to spare.”
The groups also said in the lawsuit, cited by USA Today, that the “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.”
However, Nestlé has reportedly denied the accusations, saying that its 1978 permit has not yet expired and is “in full force and effect” legally. The Forest Service does not collect fees for water usage but charges a permit fee of about $524 from Nestlé.
“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,” Brown wrote, in the op-ed for the Sun, adding: “Like several hundred other special permit holders in the San Bernardino National Forest -- and some 3,000 nationwide -- whose permit is under review, our permit remains valid and, according to federal law, 'does not expire until the application has been finally determined by the agency.'”
In August, the Forest Service reportedly said it planned to start analyzing the renewal of Nestlé’s permit under the National Environmental Policy Act and would accept comments from the public in the matter.
“The Forest Service has acknowledged that this is not proper, and has promised several times over the years to address the problem, but so far has done nothing,” Rachel Doughty of Greenfire Law, attorney for Story of Stuff and the Courage Campaign Institute, told the Guardian. “Meanwhile, our drought-parched public lands are deprived of a critical source of water that is instead being bottled for profit.”