Nestlé's bottled water division will have to go through a thorough environmental review of its long-expired permit to draw water from the San Bernardino Mountains for its Arrowhead brand, the U.S. Forest Service said Friday.
The move comes after environmental groups sued the Forest Service over Nestlé Waters North America's withdrawal of millions of gallons of water from the west fork of Strawberry Creek under a permit that expired more than 25 years ago.
Environmental groups say the creek branch provides a crucial east-west connection between watersheds in an area inhabited by imperiled species of birds, snakes, fish and frogs.
The Forest Service has allowed Nestlé and previous pipeline operators to continue transporting water about four miles, from a series of bore holes and tunnels to a storage tank near California 18, without more stringent review required after the original permit was issued in 1976, the suit alleged. Nestlé acquired the permit in 2002, and the Forest Service allowed the company to continue using the water source while the permit was under local review.
That review now will be subjected to the more modern and strict standards of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Jane Lazgin, a spokeswoman for the company, said Nestlé was pleased that the permit process was moving forward and has been cooperating with the agency's requests for documents and information.
Nestlé "agrees with the USFS it is important to manage the usage of water resources to help protect the environment, especially during times of drought," Lazgin added.
The Forest Service has a backlog of about 2,500 expired special use permits, of which about 1,200 involve water use.
Nestlé's permit would be re-issued for five years if it passes review, the Forest Service said. The agency opened a 45-day public comment period Friday.
Nestlé has come under scrutiny amid the state's prolonged drought over its withdrawal of about 705 million gallons of water per year in its five bottled-water plants in the state. Last year, protesters picketed and delivered petitions to the company demanding that it shut those facilities.
Nestlé said its bottling operations use less than 0.008% of California's water supply.