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 On its face, the non-renewal isn’t a huge anomaly, since there is already an immense backlog of outdated permits that are awaiting renewal by the CA Forest Service.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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  • mf_roe

    Nestle acquires water rights and pumps as fast and hard as possible they have devastated many communities which effectively die of thirst since there is nothing left for growth once Nestle comes to town. The direct harm isn’t to agriculture or environment so much as it is to communities dependent on limited resources. Clean water unlike oil doesn’t have an easy replacement. The oil wars are bad, the water wars will be worse ie Palestine / Israel are doomed to one already.

    Nestle had 17% of the global market in 2002 and were already the biggest player in bottled water.Big competitors continue to enter the business insuring that water will become a market commodity controlled by a limited pool of multi-billion dollar multi-national asset manages solely focused on profit.

    It’s so bad the bushes have a piece of it:

    http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022473474

  • perljammer

    The views of Nestle’s CEO on water rights are reprehensible, but are not related to the Forest Service’s failure to process permits.

    The Desert Sun (cited in the article) looked at over 1,000 water-related permits and found that over 50% were expired. The Forest Service says they’re understaffed, but are working with Nestle to process the renewal. There isn’t any criminal behavior here, just a snarl of red tape.

    As to the statistics, I don’t think “alarmist” means what you think it means, but let’s take your statement about 49% diverted and not consumed at face value. That makes Nestle’s usage of 705,000 gallons per year 0.005% of the total amount consumed, and doesn’t change the 3 fluid ounces per Californian at all.

  • The amount of water Nestle is taking isn’t very much, but that isn’t the point. The real point is they’re taking FREE water, without a permit, and then putting into the plastic bottles which are littering our country while simultaneously gouging people for water that, most of the time, is no better in quality than the water from their own sink taps.

    The whole bottled water industry is a massive scam and an ecological crime of massive proportions. It is one of the stupidest things we ever allowed to flourish.

  • We’ve bought about a dozen BPA-free reusable drinking bottles, fill them using our tap water (well water, softened and then RO-filtered), and keep them in the ‘fridge for use whenever. They’ve lasted for about five years already.

  • perljammer

    Yes, the permit in question is for one well. No, the 705 million gallons cited doesn’t all come from that well. The “huge number of operations all over California…” are actually 5 bottling plants that use a total of 705 million gallons per year. There are 106 other water bottling facilities in California, but they aren’t Nestle.

    From the article: “Nestle 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.”

  • GarySFBCN

    It doesn’t matter. They are breaking the law and Nestle’s CEO is on video proclaiming that all water should be privatized and that there is no human right to have access to clean water.

    As for you alarmist statistics: 49% of available water is diverted to the delta and wetlands – that is diverted away from residential and agricultural consumption for environmental purposes. It is NOT consumed.

  • mf_roe

    You are silly, don’t you understand the Nestle’s volume your using is for the disputed well. Nestle has a huge number of operations all over California, the US, the whole World. Nestle’s actions are well documented, exploit the resource leave the carnage behind they strip mine the water resource of a municipality and return as little as possible to the local economy.

  • perljammer

    Scandal? I think some understanding of scale would be helpful here.

    California consumes over 87 million acre feet of water per year. That’s a little over 28 trillion gallons. Nestle’s annual usage represents 0.0025% of that. Still, 704,000,000 gallons does seem like a lot of water. If you took that water and divided among the 38.8 million people that live in the state, it would add about 18 gallons/year to each persons’ share.

    Annual California household water use averages about 362 gallons per day; with an average household size of 2.9 persons. That comes to 124.8 gallons/day/person. Distributing Nestle’s usage to individuals would increase each person’s daily allotment by a little over 3 fluid ounces. I would guess that most folks let about 100 times that amount go down the drain while waiting for the shower to heat up.

    The only scandal here is the Forest Service’s failure to execute its duties. But I do agree with you about plastic water bottles.

  • The_Fixer

    Quite a scam Nestle has going on here. Take a public resource that is in short supply, and rather than the municipal water departments (AKA “the people”) utilizing it for the common good, use it for profit by selling it back to the very people who have collective ownership of it.

    And then they have the nerve to say that they want more. Wow. Just, Wow.

  • emjayay

    I have no idea how I made it though all those years of my childhood and after without dehydrating and desiccating into a leaf blowing in the wind before they invented water in a disposable bottle for $2.

  • goulo

    Quite an interesting scandal…

    The marketing of water in plastic bottles is a really stupid polluting waste of natural resources (and of consumer’s money). It would be nice and helpful if demand for bottled water would simply, well, dry up.

  • silas1898

    I buy about one case of bottled water per year. I refill them with tap water and reuse them until they wear out.

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