Ground Truth: Dispatch

California Officials: Nestlé Lacks Authority to Take Water from National Forest

California water regulators say Nestlé Waters North America is extracting millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest to sell in bottles without legal authority to do so.

In a report released on December 20, the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Water Rights found that the company and its predecessors have extracted an average of more than 62 million gallons of water each year since 1947 from facilities it operates at the headwaters of Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest.

However, after a 20-month investigation, the Water Board determined that the company may only have a right to extract about 8.5 million gallons each year.

In 2015, the Desert Sun newspaper reported that Nestlé was extracting the water under a Forest Service special-use permit that expired in 1988. That prompted a series of inquiries and complaints, culminating in a lawsuit filed against the Forest Service by conservation groups in 2016.

A California district court dismissed that lawsuit, but the plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case is pending.

“Nestlé’s explanation for its bases of right for its water diversions are not clear despite Division staff’s multiple requests for clarification,” the Water Board report says. “Nestlé claimed several poorly defined bases of right, but none of these claims are supported by evidence provided or found by Division staff.”

The report goes on to say that staff with the Water Board “recommends that Nestlé immediately cease any unauthorized diversions.” They gave Nestlé 60 days to submit an interim compliance plan and 90 days to submit an investigation and monitoring plan.

Nestlé issued a statement, saying “(w)e look forward to cooperating with SWRCB during the review process and to providing the necessary documents to supplement the SWRCB’s report, including producing information requested from over a century ago, to the extent that it is available.”