On Wednesday, a federal court ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service regarding the lawsuit filed by environmental groups that sought to halt Nestlé Waters North America’s water-bottling operations in the San Bernardino Mountains. The motion was filed by the Courage Campaign, The Story of Stuff Project and the Center for Biological Diversity following a discovery that Nestlé’s permit might have expired 28 years ago.
The judge determined that the Forest Service had not broken federal procedures in allowing Nestlé to continue removing water from Strawberry Creek. In 2015, the company siphoned 36 million gallons of water from the creek, paying just $524 for the permit to do so.
The judge said that the Forest Service did receive a “timely and sufficient application for renewal” back in May 1987, and ruled that the agency’s failure to act on that application does not invalidate the special use permit. The decision means that such special use permits effectively stay in force until they are renewed or denied; in the eyes of the law, the permit did not expire.
“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, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Bottling water is not worth sacrificing Strawberry Creek, so we’re considering our options for appeal.”
The lawsuit did prompt the Forest Service to open a review of Nestlé’s application for a new permit and the State Water Board to conduct an investigation into the validity of Nestlé’s claimed water right.
“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,” Nestlé Waters North America’s statement said.
“Arrowhead has been sustainably bottled water from the springs in Strawberry Canyon for more than 121 years—since before the creation of the San Bernardino National Forest,” the statement continued. “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. This ensures we only bottle what is naturally available. Across California and the West, we carefully monitor all of our spring sources and balance their function based on local conditions to make sure we do not overly rely on any single spring source. This supports long-term sustainability and healthy habitats.”
The company added that, in light of the drought, it has implemented new technologies in its California facilities that will conserve 55 million gallons of water each year, but did not specify details such as when these technologies were installed. Further, Nestlé’s statement said the company has proposed a voluntary, science-based environmental adaptive management plan for Arrowhead Springs “designed to protect the forest environment by using recognized, scientifically-based standards to monitor the surrounding environment and reduce water collection when conditions require.”
Last month, Nelson Switzer, Chief Sustainability Officer for Nestlé Waters North America, called for ‘aggressive new leadership’ in collective action through partnerships to solve shared water challenges. He said that all stakeholders must make better efforts to collaborate, but it seems clear that some, such as the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit and others protesting Nestlé water-bottling operations across North America, do not feel that the company has their best interests at heart.
Michael O’Heaney, the Executive Director of the Story of Stuff Project, responded to the ruling with a pledge to “continue to stand with hundreds of thousands of Californians and people across the nation to take back control of this public water,” adding, “This fight is far from over.”
Correction Note: This article previously described the permit as "expired." Under federal law, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) recognizes that renewal applications allow the permit to remain in full force and effect while the application is pending. The judge acknowledged this in his ruling: Nestlé Waters' permit never "expired" because the company applied for renewal a year prior to the permit's expiry date.