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Nestlé Is Pumping Water From A National Forest On An Expired Permit

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Nestlé was allowed to pump 28.3 million gallons of groundwater from San Bernardino National Forest last year, and it was done with a permit that expired in 1988.

Three environmental groups—Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff Project and the Courage Campaign Institute—have sued the U.S. Forest Service for allowing the company to continue to pump water without a valid permit. According to The Desert Sun, the lawsuit argues that the activity threatens natural habitats along the Strawberry Creek for protected and threatened species such as mountain yellow-legged frogs and California spotted owls.

"We want better management of public lands," said Rachel Doughty, an environmental lawyer representing the Courage Campaign Institute and the Story of Stuff Project. "Right now, it really feels like the primary emphasis is letting Nestlé take water. They've delayed the permit review for years and years and years, and let them continue to operate without a permit."

Last year, Nestlé pumped 28.3 million gallons of water from their 12 wells in Strawberry Canyon, down from 51.5 million gallons the year before, and 86.7 million gallons the year before that.

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The lawsuit comes in the wake of a Desert Sun investigation that revealed that thousands of "special use" permits issued by the Forest Service in California have expired, including over 600 permits specifically for water. Nestlé, who bottles the water under their Arrowhead brand, is one of the holders of these permits.

In May, Nestlé Water's CEO Tim Brown came under fire when he said he wanted to "increase" their bottling operations in the state.

"Until the impact of Nestlé's operation is properly reviewed, the Forest Service must turn off the spigot," Michael O'Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff Project, said according to the L.A. Times.

Further investigation by the Desert Sun revealed that Nestlé and other water bottling companies are extracting water with little oversight. No agency overseeing the operations actually tracks exactly how many millions of gallons of water are being taken every year. Records also show that the permits often expire with little to no action taken by the Forest Service due to a lack of resources.

Although Nestlé's permit expired over 25 years ago, the company has been allowed to continue under an agreement with the Forest Service in which former forest manager Gene Zimmerman wrote, "I have allowed Arrowhead's occupancy of National Forest land to continue until the permit can be re-issued, based on its continued adherence to the terms of that permit, and its payment of the required annual fee." That annual fee is $534, and the agency collects no money based on the water extracted.

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The Forest Service says that Nestlé's permit will continue to be allowed pending a full review. "We continue to operate with that permit that does remain in full force and effect," said Nestlé, through a spokesperson. The company contends that they are not harming the environment and that the over 700 million gallons of water their five bottling plants across the state uses is a mere fraction of California's water supply.

Here's a video by the Story of Stuff Project about Nestlé's operations in the San Bernardino National Forest: