The Front Country District Ranger for the San Bernardino National Forest has offered a new three-year permit for occupancy and use of the national forest land within the Strawberry Creek watershed to Nestlé Waters North America. The new permit effectively allows Nestlé Waters to continue their current water extraction operations, consistent with their water rights under state law, and includes new mitigation measures to provide for national forest resources.
Nestlé has 60 days to sign and accept the permit.
“The decision ensures that the water withdrawal and conveyance infrastructure is under a current permit, and it provides for protection of forest resources, according to the Land Management Plan based upon the best available information at this time,” said Joe Rechsteiner, district ranger for the forest’s Front Country Ranger District, where Strawberry Creek is located. “We are mandated by law to balance multiple uses of the land, however challenging that may be.”
The recent decision by the Forest Service to permit Nestlé to continue operations now includes new mitigation measures to provide for national forest resources. Such measures may include surface water diversions and groundwater extraction to be allowed only when there is water available consistent with the forest’s Land Management Plan. The permit’s duration allows forest officials and Nestlé to conduct additional studies to inform a longer-term decision. The new three-year permit may be extended for two one-year periods if more time is needed to collect and analyze information.
Surface water in California is a public resource that is regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board, which makes a determination as to the basis for Nestlé’s right to use that water. With full recognition of those rights, the San Bernardino National Forest Land Management Plan allows for water extraction from National Forest System lands but does require that permitted uses protect forest resources and operate in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.
The recent issue with Nestlé’s extraction occurred when it was discovered that the company was drawing water out of the San Bernardino mountains based on a Forest Service permit that expired in 1988. Three environmental groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, the Courage Campaign Institute and the Story of Stuff Project – sued the Forest Service in 2015 for purportedly violating the law while Nestlé continued their long-standing operations in the Strawberry Creek watershed.
In 2016 a federal judge ruled that the dated permit was valid. In 1987 Nestlé’s predecessor, Arrowhead Puritas Water Inc., had requested to renew their permit but never received a response from the Forest Service.
Nestlé’s operations in the San Bernardino National Forest are long-standing and have been permitted since 1929. The company owns and has been operating water collection tunnels, horizontal wells, water transmission pipelines and other infrastructure under the terms of the 1978 permit. Nestlé contends it has established water rights in the San Bernardino National Forest.
However, State Water Resources Control Board officials launched an extended investigation and concluded late last year that Nestlé may not have valid rights for some of the water it has drawn from the forest. In its written decision the Forest Service stated that it “leaves any issue concerning the extent of Nestlé’s water rights to the State Water Resources Control Board.”
As reported in a recent edition of the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun newspaper, Michael O’Heaney, executive director of the Story of Project said, “We’re disappointed with the Forest Service’s decision to issue a new permit, particularly in light of the ongoing investigation by the State Water Board into Nestlé’s shaky claim to a water right. While we need time to more fully understand the decision, in the days ahead we will certainly by studying our options for ensuring that the public’s natural resources are protected.”
The water Nestlé extracts from Strawberry Creek is bottled and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.