Environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday, alleging that the agency has allowed Nestle Waters to draw water from a creek in the San Bernardino Mountains under a permit that expired more than 25 years ago.
The company, owner of the Arrowhead bottled water brand, has drawn millions of gallons from the west fork of Strawberry Creek under a permit it apparently acquired in 2002.
At a time when residents have been asked to cut back water use during the record-setting drought, the diversion for commercial bottling to consumers once again has put Nestle in the cross hairs of the state's water squabbles. The company faces scrutiny over its water withdrawal activities elsewhere in the state.
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"We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestle has refused to step up and do its part," said Michael O'Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff Project, a plaintiff in the suit filed in U.S. District Court. "Until the impact of Nestle's operation is properly reviewed, the Forest Service must turn off the spigot."
The Forest Service has allowed 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 alleges.
"Modern scrutiny would never let this kind of stuff happen," said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the Courage Campaign Institute, a public policy group that is co-plaintiff in the suit. "Our understanding is there are a lot of permits like these all over the country."
The groups, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, 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. Natural water levels of the branch are hard to determine because of the diversion, but the creek has water year-round, a rarity in the region, the suit alleges.
The legal action comes on the heels of an investigation this year by the Desert Sun. Jody Noiron, supervisor for the San Bernardino National Forest, told the paper afterward that re-issuance of the permit would become a priority for the agency.
Jane Lazgin, spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America, said the company is operating under a valid permit and cooperating with the forest service.
"The U.S. Forest Service is in the process of reviewing the permit, but we continue to operate with that permit that does remain in full force and effect," Lazgin said.
Regional Forest Service spokesman John Heil said current policy allows Nestle to continue operations while a review of its request for permit renewal is underway.
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Although a review of Nestle's application could take at least 18 months, the agency is considering interim limits during the drought, Heil said.
The agency has a backlog of about 2,500 expired special use permits, of which about 1,200 involve water use, he added.
Protesters picketed and delivered petitions to the company this year demanding that it shut down bottling operations in California.
Nestle has five bottled water plants in California and uses about 705 million gallons of water each year. Nestle said it uses less than 0.008% of California's water supply.
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