California activists are suing the Forest Service for letting Nestle illegally extract water

Activists are suing the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Nestle to extract millions of gallons of water from drought-parched California using a permit that expired in 1988.

The permit violation was discovered earlier this year by The Desert Sun — a newspaper based out of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley. On its face, the non-renewal isn’t a huge anomaly, since there is already an immense backlog of outdated permits that are awaiting renewal by the CA Forest Service. Yet this particular non-renewal represents a missed — some would say purposefully derailed — chance to analyze Nestle’s ecological impact on the surrounding forest area and communities.

That’s because these kinds of permit renewals are supposed to come with evaluations from the state that determine how companies like Nestle have affected the local ecosystem. Yet the corporation is almost three decades overdue for a new evaluation.

Now activist groups are taking the minor illegality as an opportunity to call out the giant corporation for the perceived larger ecological and economic crime of draining massive amounts of California’s water while the state suffers through one of the worst droughts anybody has ever seen.

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Last week, The Center for Biological Diversity, The Courage Campaign Institute and The Story of Stuff Project filed their lawsuit against the National Forest Service, essentially accusing the federal branch of negligence. More specifically, the lawsuit expresses concern for Nestle’s well at Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, and alleges that the corporation’s continued use of the well water is negatively affecting the local ecosystem. As their lawsuit reads, “Removal of large amounts of water at the highest elevations of the watershed is having an environmental impact…throughout the entire downstream watershed.” In addition to expressing concern for the “Scenic values and recreational values” of the surrounding area, the lawsuit also mentions concern for “many of the imperiled species of plants and animals in the watershed” that will be affected by Nestle’s “excessive removal of water from the Strawberry Creek Watershed.” The groups argue that until the government can “properly review” Nestle’s impact on the environment, they should “turn off the spigot” for the corporation.

In essence, the lawsuit is a 12-page document that tells the local government to “Do your jobs, jerks.” As reported in TIME:

“Nestlé’s actions aren’t just morally bankrupt, they are illegal,” said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the Courage Campaign Institute, in a statement. “Our government won’t stand up to them, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.”

As Michael O’Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff Project, told the L.A. Times,“We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestle has refused to step up and do its part.”

O’Heaney makes a pretty good point: California recently criminalized certain types of water waste — meaning that the average person will be smacked with a $500 fine, “similar to a speeding violation,” if they do relatively mundane things like use water to “wash sidewalks and driveways” or wash “a motor vehicle using a hose without a shut-off nozzle.” This seems to stand in stark contrast to Nestle, which is technically in breach of state law by operating without a permit, and extracts hundreds of millions of gallons of water per year nonetheless. If the state is going to hold individuals responsible for their water consumption, it stands to reason that giant institutions like Nestle should be treated the same.

The impact that the lawsuit will have remains to be seen, but the clear intent seems to be to put pressure on Nestle — and to force into the public spotlight the supposed ecological threat that the corporation poses to the local ecosystem. 

While Nestle has yet to make a statement about the lawsuit, CEO of Nestle Waters North America Tim Brown took to the San Bernardino Sun in April to deny any wrongdoing with respect to the permit, and to defend his company’s rampant pillaging of the Golden State’s most precious resource. Trying to contextualize things, he offered the following:

Nestlé Waters operates five California bottling facilities, using a total of 705 million gallons of water per year. To put that amount in perspective, this is roughly equal to the annual average watering needs of two California golf courses.

This isn’t as much a justification for Nestle’s behavior as it is a deflection of blame. It’s also completely wrong. Your average 18-hole California golf course uses a lot of water, yes (somewhere around 90 million gallons annually), but nowhere near as much as Nestle. Also, golf courses in California have taken measures to “go green” since the state has entered its state of emergency over drought conditions.

Nestle has extended no such olive branch. When asked if Nestle would reduce its extraction given the drought conditions, Brown gave a pretty clear answer: “Absolutely not…In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”  


Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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