Reduce Water Taking After Historically Low Drought-Driven Streamflows, Biologist Says

With the dawning of summer, a retired United States Forest Service biologist this week called upon the Forest Service to significantly reduce the amount of water Nestlé is drawing from Strawberry Canyon, based upon data indicating the San Bernardino Mountains are not bouncing back from the five year-running drought that began in 2011.
“Even with good winter moisture this winter in the Strawberry/East Twin Creek Watershed, Tuesday and yesterday at 5:30 p.m. the stream gauge at the bottom of the watershed recorded the lowest streamflows recorded in 95 years,” said Steve Loe on Thursday June 22. “At .23 cubic feet per second, this is almost half of the lowest previously recorded.”
Loe, now retired from the Forest Service and living in Yucaipa, was a biologist assigned to the San Bernardino Forest for more than three decades.
Nestlé bottles water drawn from Strawberry Canyon under the Arrowhead brand name. Nestlé acquired the water extracting system from Perrier in 1992. The permits for the water extraction system, consisting of borings, horizontal wells, tunnels, pipelines and other appurtenances, expired in 1987. Perrier and Nestlé maintained their operations in Strawberry Canyon by continuing to pay a $524 annual fee while the Forest Service delayed carrying out the environmental review for the renewal of the permits. Nestlé’s activity, which was never favored by environmentalists, came under increasing fire as the statewide drought, which first manifested in 2011, advanced. Only in 2015, after the Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff Project and The Courage Campaign were gearing up to file a lawsuit claiming the Forest Service had violated protocols and harmed the ecology of the mountain by allowing Nestlé Waters North America to continue its operations in Strawberry Canyon for 28 years after its permit expired, did the Forest Service move to make that environmental review. In the meantime, Nestlé has continued its water extraction, pumping an average of 35.7 million gallons of water annually from the San Bernardino Mountains in 2015 and 2016, while the Forest Service study is ongoing. That study has not been completed after nearly two years.
“We had hoped that the good winter would make this summer better than the last four to five years with such low flows,” said Loe. “This is terrible and the species that require water are under severe stress. Something must be done besides continuing to remove as much water as possible from the headwaters for bottling. We should ask the Forest Service and Nestlé to immediately do something positive to help the wildlife and plants that are being so adversely affected by the continuing drought this summer.”
According to Loe, the available water in the San Bernardino Mountains should be utilized to maintain the naturally existing species and habitats there before it is diverted to human consumption elsewhere.
“The water could be taken at the bottom of the mountain, instead of in the headwaters, which adversely impacts the entire stream,” Loe said. “Wildlife drinkers could be quickly installed, at low cost, along the water pipeline to provide drinking water for these animals that need drinking water. The reaches of the stream that are believed to have reduced flows from the wells and water removal could be augmented with irrigation as was done on the Metropolitan Water District Arrowhead Tunnel Project. This would be much less costly in this case because the water is available along the entire pipeline and would not have to be hauled in or pumped. It is wrong to do nothing until all the studies are done. We know the drought is real. We know the groundwater has been severely depleted by the drought. We know that all streams in Southern California are experiencing severe drought effects. Doing nothing but study is not the Forest Service standard for resource protection.”
Nestlé Waters North America is a division of the Swiss-owned Nestlé Corporation. Loe said it is particularly galling that a foreign company is reaping a profit by perpetuating ecological damage within the publicly-owned forest.
“Nestlé has threatened the Forest Service and it is very powerful politically,” Loe said. “Nestlé has hired top level ex-Forest Service and Department of Agriculture employees and agency heads. We do not know the full extent of the pressure that the Forest Service is under politically, but it must be great. In effect, Nestlé, a foreign, multinational corporation, has hijacked the publicly-owned water resource on National Forest public land. They are getting the water before it is able to provide public and environmental benefits. They are basically getting the water for free and have threatened to sue the Forest Service if it tried to regulate the company’s water taking.”
Loe continued, “Nestlé’s permit has long-expired and the Forest Service, agencies and public have never negotiated the new permit since Nestlé bought the permit 25 years ago. The change of ownership was supposed to trigger new permit requirements to protect the environment. This should have been done, but Nestlé was politically strong enough to prevent it. It is only the strong public outcry and support of the National Forest that gave the Forest Service the strength to stand up, demand studies and propose changes to the permit.”
“With the current political desire to put America first, we should go to our senators, representatives, and our president and ask them to intervene to protect our public trust resources,” Loe said. “We should do the same with our state legislators and governor to intervene to protect state public water resources. The Forest Service and State of California have the legal right to control the taking of water and protect the public trust resources. They need our support and encouragement to stand up to Nestlé. Until the studies are complete and streamflows return to pre-drought conditions, water taking must be curtailed or we will further severely impact our public resources. Some species that must have water have already been eliminated from the watershed, and habitat for remaining species is being severely impacted during this drought.”
Nestlé maintains it has faithfully paid the U.S. Forest Service the annual permitting fee of $524 to keep water flowing through its pipeline, that it has the established right to continue to use the water, has been in compliance with all regulations relating to its operation and that it is acting now and has always acted in an environmentally sensitive and responsible manner.

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