RIVERSIDE. A federal judge on Wednesday ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service, declaring valid Nestlé’s permit for water-bottling operations in the San Bernardino Mountains, on a motion filed by three environmental groups that sought to shut down the company’s efforts until its effects on the environment could be evaluated.


Miles from the nearest paved road in the San Bernardino National Forest, two sounds fill a rocky canyon: a babbling stream and the hissing of water flowing through a stainless steel pipe. From wells that tap into springs high on the mountainside, water gushes down through the pipe to a roadside tank. From there, it is transferred to tanker trucks, hauled to a bottling plant and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.

Pump Station

Nestlé Waters

Arrowhead Spring Waters

~ 57,000,000 gl/year


san bernardino

san bernardino

Nestlé Waters North America holds a longstanding right to use this water from the national forest near San Bernardino. But the U.S. Forest Service hasn‘t been keeping an eye on whether the taking of water is harming Strawberry Creek and the wildlife that depends on it. In fact, Nestlé‘s permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988. It hasn‘t been reviewed since, and the Forest Service hasn‘t examined the ecological effects of drawing tens of millions of gallons each year from the springs.


Even with California deep in drought, the federal agency hasn‘t assessed the impacts of the bottled water business on springs and streams in two watersheds that sustain sensitive habitats in the national forest. The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues, and of a regulatory system in California that allows the bottled water industry to operate with little independent tracking of the potential toll on the environment.

No one knows about the amounts of water extractions by bottled water plants in California

In an investigation of the industry‘s water footprint in the San Bernardino National Forest and other parts of California, The Desert Sun found that: No state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by all of the bottled water plants in California, or monitoring the effects on water supplies and ecosystems statewide. The California Department of Public Health regulates 108 bottled water plants in the state, collecting information on water quality and the sources tapped. But the agency says it does not require companies to report how much water they use. That information, when collected piecemeal by state or local agencies, often isn‘t easily accessible to the public. In some cases, the amounts of water used are considered confidential and not publicly released.


Even as Nestlé Waters has been submitting required reports on its water use, the Forest Service has not been closely tracking the amounts of water leaving the San Bernardino National Forest and has not assessed the impacts on the environment. While the Forest Service has allowed Nestlé to keep using an expired permit for nearly three decades, the agency has cracked down on other water users in the national forest. Several years ago, for instance, dozens of cabin owners were required to stop drawing water from a creek when their permits came up for renewal. Nestlé has faced no such restrictions. Only this year, after a group of critics raised concerns in letters and after The Desert Sun inquired about the expired permit, did Forest Service officials announce plans to take up the issue and carry out an environmental analysis.

An urgent need to protect the sources

In the San Bernardino National Forest, Nestlé insists its bottling of spring water isn't causing any harm. Water from Arrowhead Springs has been tapped and sold for more than a century. The company says it is complying with all the requirements of its expired permit in the national forest and has been informed by the Forest Service that it can keep operating lawfully until a new permit is eventually issued. The company

“When you take water from the springs that are the source of those waters, you dry up these canyons. And they‘re the most important habitats that we have.“

– Steve Loe, a biologist who retired from the Forest Service in 2007

Nestlé water pipe through San Bernardino National Forest

Residents about Nestlés water extractions in the National Forest

also says that at all of the springs where it draws water, it monitors the environment and manages its water use to ensure "long-term sustainability".

Two former Forest Service employees interviewed by The Desert Sun say they think it‘s wrong that the agency for decades hasn‘t studied the impacts on the national forest. During the drought, they say, there is now an urgent need to protect the water sources on public lands and reexamine Nestlé‘s bottling operation.


“They‘re taking way too much water. That water‘s hugely important.“ said Steve Loe, a biologist who retired from the Forest Service in 2007. Loe first raised his concerns in an email in September to a list of federal and state officials and others, including a Nestlé Waters manager. He pointed out that Nestlé‘s permit “has long expired and needs to be reissued“ requiring an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He suggested a meeting.

Soon afterward, Loe met with the Nestlé manager and laid out his concerns. Five months later – after he and others sent additional critical letters to the government and after The Desert Sun posed questions about the expired permit – Forest Service officials met with Loe and told him they have started to evaluate the reissuance of the expired permit.


While pleased that the agency acknowledged the issue, Loe still ha[d] concerns. He want[ed]

to see an environmental study prepared by an independent third party. He also wants a review of Nestlé‘s use of water from Deer Canyon Springs in the national forest. He said it‘s time for immediate measures to put more water into the streams while those environmental reviews, which can take years, are carried out.

“Because of the drought emergency, they need to go beyond just doing the NEPA, [...] I would like to see the Forest Service and Nestlé agree not to take water until they know if it‘s OK to take water. This hasn‘t been studied in a long time.“

– Steve Loe

“It‘s just improper management and poor funding.“

"That's Arrowhead's pipe coming down right there." said Gary Earney, a retired Forest Service employee, standing on the bank of the creek and leaning on a walking stick. Earney used to administer permits for the Forest Service, and he said the agency has never done an assessment of how the taking of water affects the creek. Back when the water pipes were installed in the early 20th

“It‘s just so unfair. We made the little people do the right thing, and we‘re not making the big people do the right thing.“

 – Steve Loe

Regional review of the water permits – but not for the big ones

While Nestlé's expired permit hasn't been scrutinized in nearly three decades, some other water users have been required to cut back. In the mid-2000s, as part of a regional review, the Forest Service went through the permits of hundreds of cabins on land in the national forest and reexamined their use of water from creeks. In Barton Flats, for instance, dozens of cabin owners were told they could no longer draw water from Barton Creek;

A big backlog, but other priorities

Employees of the San Bernardino National Forest say they oversee about 1,500 permits for various uses of national forest lands, ranging from power lines to cabins. About 360 of those permits are expired, and officials say they are gradually working on the backlog. “The Nestlé permit is just one of those 360. It‘s not like we‘ve purposely held that one out,“ said Al Colby, a public services staff officer who oversees permits.

Jason Collier, a lands and recreation specialist who handles special use permits, said he didn‘t know how much water Nestlé has been using. He pointed out that when the permit was issued in the 1970s, reporting the volumes of water wasn‘t one of the conditions. Collier recalled that reissuing Nestlé‘s expired permit was “part of the discussion“ at one point – until the additional railroad track in Cajon Pass came up. “Then the discussion became, ‚There‘s a backlog in Long Beach (port) and we can‘t get our shipping containers moved. You work on the railroad.‘“ Collier said. “That‘s our reality, right or wrong.“

“I have 660,000 acres of the national forest to work on, and I‘m just one guy. When it becomes a priority, I‘ll deal with it.“

– Robert Taylor, forest hydrologist

Taylor also said: “We have a lot to do. There are a lot of expired permits. We get direction from the regional office and the Washington office on how to handle our levels of permits,“. Reissuing the permit likely will require studies to answer questions about how the water would flow if it weren‘t being extracted from the springs, said Robert Taylor, the forest hydrologist. Some of those questions, he said, include where a drop of water would otherwise go, whether it would in fact reach the creek, and how long its journey down the watershed would take.

Nestlé lawsuit judge ruling

The issue has sparked an emotional debate during California’s epic drought, with opponents arguing that taking water harms the environment and wildlife along Strawberry Creek, and that the impacts on the ecosystem need to be scientifically assessed. Although Tuesday’s [edit: Sept. 21, 2016] ruling has dealt a major blow to legal efforts to stop Nestlé, O’Heaney was quick to note that the lawsuit was just one way in

“Plantiffs do not identify, and the court cannot find, any authority holding that an agency’s failure to act within a reasonable time”

– Jesus G. Bernal, federal judge

Among other complaints, the plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued was that the special use permit for four miles of pipeline and other structures used to tap Strawberry Canyon’s spring water had expired Aug. 2, 1988, and was never properly renewed.


Bernal said the Forest Service did receive a “timely and sufficient application for renewal” in May 1987. He also rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that the USFS failure to act on the May 1987 letter for 30 years renders the special use permit — which Nestlé pays $524 each year to maintain — invalid. “Plantiffs do not identify, and the court cannot find, any authority holding that an agency’s failure to act within a reasonable time” can invalidate a special use permit, Bernal wrote in his 12-page decision filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Central Division of California. “The court’s decision is disappointing, but the real tragedy lies in the fact that Strawberry Creek is drying up, dooming the plants, fish and animals that have relied on it for tens of thousands of years,” said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.

A court confirms concerns

Nestle seems far more satisfied with the decision: “While Nestlé Waters is not a party to the case, we are pleased that today’s ruling confirms the United States Forest Service can continue to move forward with the permit renewal process related to our Arrowhead brand,” Christopher Rieck, spokesman for Nestlé Waters North America Inc., said in a statement. “We take our responsibility as a water steward in California seriously and that is why we do not pump water from the Arrowhead Springs, but rather only source water that flows to the surface“, Rieck said, in a statement. “Nestlé carefully monitors all spring sources and manages them to ensure long-term sustainability and healthy habitats“, he said.


Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service proposed awarding Nestlé a five-year permit for bottled water operations in the San Bernardino Mountains. But the permit won’t be issued until a National Environmental Policy Act study is completed and the Forest Service, based on this detailed environmental study, decides to grant a new one, officials said. The study — the first scientific look at the effects of Nestlé’s operations in the San Bernardino National Forest — could take two years to complete.

“Nestlé has been pulling a fast one for nearly 30 years, [...] at an obscene profit without the right to do so, but apparently our justice system is OK with that.”

– Michael O’Heaney, Story of Stuff Project executive director

“The court has just confirmed what many Americans fear, massive corporations play by a different set of rules than the rest of us,” said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of Courage Campaign Institute, in a statement. “Nestlé has been pulling a fast one for nearly 30 years, taking a public resource, depriving plants and animals of life-sustaining water, and selling that water at an obscene profit without the right to do so, but apparently our justice system is OK with that.” Michael O’Heaney, Story of Stuff Project executive director, said, “This fight is far from over.”

“Respecting nature is in our nature.” – A giant denies causing any harm to the environment

Nestlé has also been embroiled in heated debates elsewhere. This week [Sept. 2016], voters in Oregon blocked Nestlé’s plans to tap water from a spring in the Columbia River Gorge, approving a ballot measure that bans commercial water bottling in Hood River County – the first measure of its kind in the country.

“We‘re very, very efficient water users. One of the things we‘re constantly working on is how to become more efficient.“

– David Thorpe, Nestlé‘s western supply chain director

Nestlé SA, headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, is the world‘s largest food company, and its Paris-based subsidiary Nestlé Waters is the world’s biggest producer of bottled water. While the dispute over Nestlé’s bottling operation plays out in Southern California, the company has been making its case through an advertising campaign. Some of the ads on billboards and in

Growing demand of bottled water in California

The company‘s water use in the state has been growing along with its sales of bottled water. Figures provided by Nestlé show that between 2011 and 2014, during years of extreme drought, the company‘s water use in California increased 19 percent. Lawrence said, however, that the company carefully monitors its springs and adjusts the volumes of water drawn from different springs in response to the amounts flowing. In Southern California, the company can tap spring water from six locations in Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Inyo counties, and has been drawing water from five of those sites recently. The springs‘ names are printed on Arrowhead bottles: Southern Pacific Springs, Long Point Ranch, Palomar Mountain Granite Springs, Deer Canyon Springs, Arrowhead Springs and Coyote Springs.

 more about

growing consumption of bottled water

“Everything is operated sustainably, we watch those flows and we manage our water take to those conditions.“

 – Larry Lawrence, Nestlé‘s natural resource manager

“Everything is operated sustainably,“ Lawrence said. He said the company has been closely observing all of its springs as the drought has left less water flowing in many areas. “We watch those flows and we manage our water take to those conditions,“ he said. “We look at environmental conditions around our sources as well to make sure that there‘s no impacts other than drought impacts that we see naturally occurring.“ The company‘s water system at Arrowhead Springs is largely

Bottled water boom in the U.S.

Sales of bottled water have been booming for years in the United States. Last year, preliminary figures from the Beverage Marketing Corporation showed about $13 billion in bottled water sales in 2014, an increase of 6.1 percent from a year earlier. Bottled water plants are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and in California they are also regulated by the state‘s Department of Public Health.


The state‘s list of 108 licensed bottled water plants includes companies that sell individual-size bottles as well as larger jugs for home and office delivery. They range from CG Roxane, which packages Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water at plants in Weed and Olancha, to DS Services of America, which bottles brands such as Alhambra to Sparkletts at eight plants across California.

century, he pointed out, no one conducted environmental reviews. Now, he said, it's long overdue. Determining how much water is needed for a healthy ecosystem, he said, will require a thorough study. And that hasn‘t been done in all these years, he said, because the Forest Service lacks sufficient funding after repeated budget cuts and has a large backlog of expired permits. “It‘s a national problem,“ Earney said. “I think it‘s just improper management and poor funding.“ “I‘m not opposed to the taking of water. But the water removed needs to be surplus to the needs of the national forest.“ Earney said. If the water is needed for wildlife, he said, it should instead be diverted at the national forest‘s boundary after it has flowed through the creek.

instead, they would have to use wells or install tanks and truck in water. Cabin owners spent thousands of dollars putting
in tanks.


“Some of these people had been using the water with water rights for 80 years, and it was very costly to make the change. Nestlé takes more water from the stream in one day

than the total of all of those cabin owners in a year,“ Loe said. “It‘s just so unfair.“ “We made the little people do the right thing,“ he said, “and we‘re not making the big people do the right thing.“ Amanda Frye, a community activist who lives in Redlands, said she finds the lack of oversight by the Forest Service disturbing, particularly during the drought. “The U.S. government is just giving away our natural resources to an international corporation,“ Frye said. “I think that‘s really wrong.“

“The thing is that Nestlé continues to pay the fee that they were charged back when the permit was still valid.“ Because of that, he said, the expired permit‘s conditions have remained in effect. “Basically as long as they‘re paying the fee that was established before it expired, the permit is enforceable.“

The national forest has continued to collect a permit fee of $524 from Nestlé Waters each year. Forest Service officials said that in the 2000s there was talk of renewing Nestlé‘s

 permit but that other priorities took precedence. Over the years, they said, those other priorities have included wildfires, forest thinning projects, a new rail line through Cajon Pass, and updating permits relating to Southern California Edison.

which Nestlé‘s operation is being challenged. After years of inaction, the Forest Service is now re-examining Nestlé’s permit. The agency has proposed to issue a permit that would allow Nestlé to continue operating its wells and water pipelines in the forest for five years, and the permit process is to include environmental studies. Nestlé’s use of water from the forest is also being investigated by the state water board. The company has insisted its rights are “among the most senior water rights” in California, but state officials began investigating after receiving several complaints questioning whether company actually holds valid rights.

newspapers display photos of the mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest with the slogan “Respecting nature is in our nature.” Nestlé denies causing any harm to the environment in the national forest. It says its engineers and scientists monitor the company’s water sources as well as the surrounding environment.


David Thorpe, Nestlé‘s western supply chain director, touted the company‘s water efficiency, saying it takes about 1.3 liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water –

much less than soft drinks or beer. “We‘re very, very efficient water users,“ Thorpe said. “One of the things we‘re constantly working on is how to become more efficient.“ Statewide, Nestlé Waters used a total of 2,164 acre-feet of water from all sources in 2014, said Larry Lawrence, Nestlé‘s natural resource manager. That‘s about 705 million gallons – enough to irrigate roughly 700 acres of farmland, or keep two golf courses green, or fill 1,068 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“self-regulating,“ Lawrence said, because it is gravity-fed and there is no pumping involved. He said Nestlé uses the spring water that naturally flows from the ground, and the amounts change based on fluctuations in the springs‘ flow. The company says it bottled nearly 25 million gallons from Arrowhead Springs last year, on average about 68,000 gallons a day. That was down from about 27 million gallons during 2013.

Water law in California and other U.S. states

In that regard, the water laws in California and other western states generally provide fewer protections than those of much wetter states in the Great Lakes region, said Noah Hall, a professor who specializes in environmental and water law at Wayne State University in Detroit. In Minnesota, for instance, Hall said state officials respond proactively to relatively dry periods and reduce the amounts of water that permit

“The law in most western states regarding water was written more than a hundred years ago when states wanted to see streams dried up to promote economic development, it‘s time to change the law “

– Noah Hall

“One of the things that we‘re constantly looking for is additional water sources that meet our requirements. They‘re relatively rare.“

– Larry Lawrence

To meet growing demand, companies have opened more bottling plants over the years. And some, such as Nestlé, have sought out new springs. “One of the things that we‘re constantly looking for is additional water sources that meet our requirements. They‘re relatively rare.“ Lawrence said. “The drought year is a great year to go look for water because if it‘s sustaining its volume during a drought, then it‘s a nice, stable source.“


That deal, along with gradual rate increases paid by customers, has helped boost the water district‘s operating revenues, which grew from $44.7 million in 2005 to $83.4 million in 2014. It‘s not clear how much Nestlé is paying the water district, or how much the agency has benefitted from the deal. A copy of the agreement that the water district provided to The Desert Sun was heavily redacted to remove references to the price paid and other details. The water district cited an exemption in the state‘s public records law for “trade secrets.“

holders are entitled to use. “They don‘t wait for the overpumping to harm the stream during the low-flow period,“ Hall said. Not so in California, where Hall said the law is essentially „about taking the water out of the stream and using it.“

If people want to see greater protections for streams, he said, “it‘s time to change the law.“ “It would be really great if there was public information about how much water these plants actually bottled, and where it came from,“ said Peter Gleick, a water researcher who is president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute. In order to know whether bottled water is being produced sustainably, he said, people need access to information about the sources tapped and the amounts bottled. “There‘s so much angst statewide about water in general, and a lot of it is the result of a lack of transparency about who‘s using water to do what, from where.“ Gleick said. “I‘m a fan of public transparency about water use. The other issue, of course, is there is a question about converting a public good into a private product.“ “The real issue is nobody‘s really paying attention to the local consequences on groundwater and streams.“ Gleick said.

“There‘s a real difference between saying, ’We know there‘s no problem because we‘re watching,‘ and ’We don‘t know if there‘s a problem because nobody‘s watching.‘ Those are different, and all too often with our environmental challenges, we learn that nobody‘s really watching. And that needs to be fixed.“

– Peter Gleick

Nestlé’s water use for

bottled water in California

U.S. per capita consumption
of bottled water

swimming pools


water use

35.0 gallons per year






more about Arrowhead Spring Water

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