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Andrea Newell headshot

Nestlé’s Expired Permit Prompts Water Diversion Lawsuit

By Andrea Newell

On Tuesday, The Story of Stuff Project, Courage Campaign and Center for Biological Diversity joined together in a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The suit alleges that USFS allowed Nestlé to continue to divert water from California's San Bernardino National Forest, despite an expired special use permit and a severe drought.

Since the permit expired 27 years ago, the company has made a huge profit by bottling millions of gallons of water while paying next to nothing for it.

The lawsuit, and the most recent (non-animated) movie by The Story of Stuff Project, focuses on a four-mile pipeline Nestlé uses to siphon water from San Bernardino National Forest’s Strawberry Creek and bottle it in Ontario, California.

Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns at The Story of Stuff, traveled to Strawberry Creek and filmed the conditions there. He spoke to former U.S. Forest Service employees who watched the water level dwindle to record lows, while Nestlé relentlessly continues to remove thousands of gallons a day.

Steve Loe, retired U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, told Wilson that in his remaining years, he wanted to take care of his grandchildren, and “make sure they have streams to enjoy, wildlife to enjoy; that is probably one of the most important things I can do.”

But Loe has become more and more worried as the days go on.

“I thought there was a good chance we could completely dry Strawberry Creek up,” he said.

Another retired U.S. Forest Service ranger, Gary Earney, echoed Loe’s concern. He explained that Strawberry Creek is “a critical drainage for our plant and animal communities” as the urban population grows and the national forests become isolated islands of plant and animal life.

Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff Project, agrees. “The water Nestlé takes would otherwise be flowing into the forest. Nestlé’s continued operation harms the public because even small amounts of water in this dry environment are critically important, especially in a drought.”

“We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestlé has refused to step up and do its part,” O’Heaney said.

The lawsuit demands that the court immediately shut down the pipeline and require the USFS to perform a thorough permitting process as required by law, including an environmental impact assessment.

The exact amount of water per year that Nestlé has siphoned from San Bernardino National Forest is not clear. Earney estimated it to be between 50 million and 150 million gallons per year. Nestlé says that it used 25 million gallons in 2014. But The Story of Stuff Project has figures from the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District showing that Nestlé used a total of 165 million gallons from 2012 through 2014. 

Whatever the actual number, in the nearly three decades Nestlé has taken millions of gallons of water and bottled it for profit, it paid the USFS only $524 annually. After 27 years, that amounts to just $14,148.

Nearly a half million Californians signed a petition earlier this year asking Nestlé to stop bottling water during the drought, but to no avail. A nationwide survey found that a majority of people in the U.S. believe Nestlé should stop bottling in California, but there has been no cessation from the company.

“Nestlé’s actions aren’t just morally bankrupt, they are 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,” explained Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the California-based Courage Campaign Institute, in a press release. “Our government won’t stand up to them, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.”

O’Heaney added: “The Forest Service is obligated by law to ensure public land resources are well managed. Without a proper review of Nestlé’s operation, including a full review of its environmental impacts, the Forest Service can’t assure the public that it is meeting its obligation to protect the plants and animals in the national forest.”

Nestlé defends its removal of water from the San Bernardino National Forest as legal, and says that its permit is one of hundreds waiting for renewal by the USFS,  and in the interim, the company has full rights to continue taking water. (Twenty-seven years is quite a long backlog for permit renewal.)

But even if it is legal, should a company continue to strip natural resources that are desperately needed when weather conditions change, like in the case of this severe drought? Popular opinion says no. Former USFS employees, residents, many California nonprofit community members and even most of the rest of the U.S. population all believe that Nestlé should cease operations in San Bernardino National Forest. What remains to be seen is what the court will decide.

Read a copy of the lawsuit.

Image courtesy of The Story of Stuff Project Nestlé video footage

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell