By Steve Loe
Nelson Switzer, the sustainability chief at Nestlé, retailer of Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, has made several of what I consider very inaccurate and misleading statements and editorial submissions recently.
I am a retired U.S. Forest Service fish and wildlife biologist who spent over thirty years protecting and helping to manage the San Bernardino National Forest for the public. The Strawberry Creek Watershed (where Nestlé has their wells and tunnels that they call springs) includes a very important stream and wildlife habitat within the forest, which is public land and owned by us, every citizen. Nestlé only has a permit to occupy and use the land and water from the Forest Service. The Forest Service has the authority to modify or not reissue the permit in order to protect the National Forest and its resources.
In 1929, Nestlé’s predecessors obtained a permit from the Forest Service to create tunnels and drill horizontal wells into the mountain to harvest groundwater. For all these years Nestlé has claimed that it had water rights to springs that pre-date the Forest Service and that those rights included all the water they could get from their horizontal wells within the forest. The Forest Service has questioned the water rights for years and a retired Forest Service employee who still lives in Redlands even tried to get the upper levels of the Forest Service to charge for the water that was obviously groundwater and not surface water from springs as Nestlé claimed. These efforts were stopped by political pressure from Washington. All of the large water companies are very powerful and go immediately to Washington if the Forest Service tries to change their operations.
National Forests have Federal Reserve Rights for groundwater and surface water. It appears as if Nestlé’s claim of ownership of the water is not true. They have recently threatened to sue the Forest Service for illegal taking if it tried to curtail its water take from the forest. It is public water managed by the State of California Department of Water Resources and the Forest Service for the public good. Both agencies include protecting the environment for the public in their mission. The Arrowhead Springs that Nestlé refers to as being used for 121 years are not even close to the Forest Service-permitted wells where it gets its water out of the National Forest. This is not water that flows to the surface naturally as bubbling springs as Nestlé claims. Its current sources are all deep wells and tunnels (not naturally flowing springs), miles from where it claims historic use of Arrowhead Springs. It is taking National Forest and State public water.
When the permit was first issued, we as a society and as scientists did not have the knowledge of the environment that we have today. The US Forest Service now has scientists on staff who understand groundwater and surface water relationships, the importance of groundwater and surface water in protecting vegetation and wildlife, including rare and endangered species, and management needed to protect the National Forest. The permit that Nestlé has been operating under expired 29 years ago. The permits were only issued for 10 years because things change in 10 years that could make it necessary to change the permit. In the last 20 years the San Bernardino National Forest has learned so much about the plants and animals and geology of the front country of the San Bernardino Mountains. We now know that in the hot, dry summer in the front country, there is never excess water in our few perennial streams that run all year. Every drop of water is important in the summer months, especially during a drought.
Until the public raised the issue of Nestlé taking huge amounts of water during a severe drought, Nestlé’s scientists only monitored their wells and groundwater above their wells. It said its employees fly over the stream many times on the way to and from its wells and everything has always looked great. That is not real monitoring. The company only recently started looking at the stream below its wells because of public pressure.
The permit should have never been allowed to expire and remain in force for 29 years with no change in the operation to protect the environment. There are species that have been eliminated from Strawberry Creek because of fire, drought and low water flows made worse by Nestlé’s removal of an average of over sixty million gallons of our water per year. There are species that are listed as threatened or endangered that find suitable habitat in Strawberry Creek. All of the species in the Strawberry Creek watershed need water and can be adversely affected by removal of groundwater at the top of the watershed. With today’s knowledge of surface water/groundwater relationships, the Forest Service should never permit taking water away from the forest for a nonessential use with so much potential to harm the environment. All recent permits issued by the Forest Service require intensive monitoring and mitigation to protect the forest from potential impacts. The Forest Service even made long-term recreation cabin owners stop taking water from streams because of the need to protect summer flows in our mountain streams. Nestlé, a multi-national foreign corporation, should not be treated better than U.S. citizens and be allowed to remove huge amounts of water with no constraints to protect the forest and streams.
The very worst thing about this circumstance is that during the worst drought in 300 plus years, Nestlé refused to let any of the water it is able to capture go to the stream. At the same time the mountain residents who are dependent on some of the same groundwater were being told to cut their water use by twenty-five percent or more, Nestlé actually increased its water seizure in 2015 because of slightly more rain in the winter. The hundreds of millions of gallons of water taken during the drought could have provided essential water for the plants and animals that we all know were struggling to survive during the drought.
Many people are beginning to understand why this situation is so different than other Forest Service permits. Nestlé is one of the most powerful corporations in the world. It has have acquired huge government influence by hiring ex- high level Forest Service and other government agency heads, gaining sway over legislators, and intimidating the Forest Service through threats to take legal action. It is a foreign corporation based in Switzerland as opposed to a U.S. or local company. It does do not have the concern for protecting natural resources of the U.S., California and public land like the locally owned and operated corporations and agencies the Forest Service normally works with. Profit is the bottom line for Nestlé and its shareholders. It has gotten away with taking our public water and hurting our stream and forest for many years through claims that were false. Now that we know the truth about the history and water rights, as well as the environmental changes since 1978, it is time to let the groundwater, springs and streams recover from the drought. Then we can determine if there is excess water to National Forest and natural resource needs.
Mr. Switzer says that “We focus on maintaining an open dialog and close, long standing relationships with the communities in which we live and work.” Nothing is further from the truth in our case. For three years we (the public) have been asking for a public meeting to talk about the permit and how to protect the stream. The League of Women Voters even held a public forum/hearing to give Nestlé a chance to meet with the public to discuss taking care of our forest, mountain, and Strawberry Creek. Instead of coming to the meeting, company officials restated in a letter their input to the Forest Service a year ago stating that they really cared about Strawberry Creek, but it was their water and Strawberry Creek was fine. In their opinion, the State or the Forest Service had no authority to tell them to leave water for the stream. It was their water based on their claim of ownership.
It is as if Mr. Switzer has not been around to see what is really going on here. Thank goodness the public is getting involved more and more every day in taking back our public land and water. Nestlé has spent millions in Southern California on newspaper, billboard and movie theater adds displaying its stewardship of water and natural resources, and yet did nothing to ease the impact on plants and animals affected by its water removal during the terrible drought.
Those of us who care about the National Forest and Strawberry Creek continue to ask Nestlé for an open, public meeting so it can explain to us how it is taking care of the watershed while it continues to remove massive amounts of water, and give us a chance to present public opinion and ideas for protecting our stream and mountains.
Steve Loe is a retired US Forest Service biologist residing in Yucaipa.