By Amanda Frye and Mark Gutglueck
In recent years, there has been significant controversy over the Nestlé Corporation’s siphoning of water from the San Bernardino National Forest.
Since 1992, when Nestlé acquired the Arrowhead brand from Perrier, the Swiss corporation has continued to bottle water drafted from the Strawberry Creek headwaters at the approximate 5,000 foot elevation level in the San Bernardino Mountains. The water withdrawal from the Strawberry Creek headwaters started in 1929 after the Arrowhead Spring Corporation sold Consolidated Waters questionable rights which appear to have been used to fund a 1925-issued “Gold Bond” payment. Perrier had obtained the Arrowhead water bottling operation and brand from a long list of predecessors, both valid corporations and shell entities, including BCI; Beatrice Foods; Coca Cola Bottling of L.A.; Northwest Industries of Chicago; Standard Oil; Rheem Manufacturing; Arrowhead Springs Co.; Consolidated Water, which had acquired that operation formerly operating as the Arrowhead Hot Springs Company; Arrowhead Puritas; Arrowhead and Puritas; Arrowhead Drinking Water Co.; BCI-Arrowhead Drinking Water; Arrowhead Water Corporation; the shell company “Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water Co.; Great Spring Waters of America; and Nestlé Waters of North America, Inc.
In 1978, Arrowhead Puritas renewed with the U.S. Forest Service a permit pertaining to transporting the harvested water from Strawberry Canyon for ten years. While still holding that permit, for which it paid $524 per year, Arrowhead Puritas was bought out by Beatrice Foods, which morphed into the BCI-Arrowhead Drinking Water Company as a consequence of Beatrice’s bankruptcy. In 1987, Perrier purchased the BCI-Arrowhead Drinking Water Company, in so doing acquiring the still-active permit. Prior to the permit expiring the following year, Beatrice had applied via letter to renew it. Such a renewal required a U.S. Forest Service review of the water drafting arrangement and its environmental/ecological impact, which at that point the U.S. Forest Service did not have the immediately available resources to carry out. In a gesture of compromise, Perrier was allowed, pending the eventual Forest Service review, to continue to operate in Strawberry Canyon by simply continuing to pay the $524-per year fee to perpetuate the water extraction under the terms of the expired permit.
In time and with drought conditions, environmental groups moved to challenge the U.S. Forest Service’s laissez-faire stance with regard to the removal of the Strawberry Canyon headwaters from horizontal wells and tunnels going hundreds of feet into the mountainside, filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over the matter. While that suit was yet pending before the federal court, the California State Water Resources Control Board undertook an investigation into Nestlé’s water collection in the San Bernardino National Forest. After a two-year investigation, state officials last December determined that Nestlé was diverting on a yearly basis 192 acre-feet (62.56 million gallons), an amount more than seven times the 26 acre-feet of water (8.47 million gallons) per year it had a preliminary right to draft. The board told Nestlé to immediately end any unauthorized water use. There is no indication Nestlé did so. Three environmental groups leading the charge against what they claimed was profligate use of San Bernardino Mountain forest groundwater – the Center for Biological Diversity, the SOS Project, and the Courage Campaign – agreed to drop their appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of a ruling by Judge Jesus Bernal that had dismissed their earlier suit conditional upon the Forest Service making a decision with regard to the renewal or cancellation of Nestlé’s permit.
In a decision memo issued on June 27 by San Bernardino National Forest District Ranger Joseph Rechsteiner, The U.S. Forest Service gave Nestlé clearance to renew its permit for three years with a potential two year extension. That continued water extraction is to be subject to a complex of conditions and restrictions. The decision was memorialized in what was termed a categorical exclusion and decision memo.
“I have decided to approve the continued occupancy and use of National Forest System lands for the extraction and transmission of water using existing improvements, subject to resource mitigation measures designed to ensure compliance with the Forest Service’s land management plan,” Rechsteiner wrote in the memo. Ranger Rechsteiner confirmed to a group stakeholders on September 11 that he was told by the “Washington Office” to reissue the permit to Nestlé as a categorical exclusion. Nestlé signed the new permit agreement on August 24.
On September 11, local mountain and valley stakeholders and activists started to garner signatures for a petition asking Governor Brown to intervene. On the September 20, the SOS Campaign joined the petition drive with an on-line petition version containing a drafted form letter to Governor Jerry Brown. That form letter states, “On behalf of all Californians and our state’s treasured natural environment, we ask for your help to stop the federal give away of our public water to Nestlé, a Swiss multinational corporation. Nestlé is withdrawing millions of gallons of our water from the headwaters of Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest and bottling it for huge profit under the Arrowhead brand. Nestlé pays nothing for this water and, despite severe drought and wildfire conditions, the corporation has not reduced its water withdrawal.
The State Water Resource Control Board is in the process of issuing a final ruling to determine if Nestlé has legitimate water rights. Our extensive research shows that Nestlé has no legitimate water rights in our San Bernardino National Forest. Nestlé is taking millions of gallons of groundwater meant for the forest and the local community’s water supply. These groundwater levels are depleted, and wells are drying up. Nestlé fills its pipeline from borehole wells and tunnels that tap the water hundreds of feet into the mountainside. The pipeline rushes with water, transporting it down the mountainside, following the dry upper creek bed and diminished flows downstream.
The United States Forest Service has recently decided to issue Nestlé a new permit, allowing it to continue its water extraction. With the severe drought conditions in the San Bernardino Mountains and no proven water rights, this decision is illogical and immoral.
Governor Brown, we ask you to immediately intervene to protect California’s water supply from Nestlé — whose water withdrawal is taking place with federal approval on our public land. We ask for this cease and desist to occur until the State Water Resource Control Board issues a final ruling, and the Strawberry Creek ecosystem is restored.
Some of those petitions have already been sent to the governor. So far, over 10,255 signatures have been collected via paper and online petitioning efforts. The SOS Campaign and stakeholders are continuing their signature gathering effort. Those who wish to participate can do so by going to http://action.storyofstuff.org/letter/tell-brown-shut-nestle-down-letter/?t=8&akid=77106.767315.VGwWRm
By Amanda Frye and Mark Gutglueck