A trio of groups announced today it's suing the U.S. Forest Service for allowing Nestlé to siphon precious national forest water to be bottled as Arrowhead products.

At the heart of the suit by the Story of Stuff Project, the California-based Courage Campaign Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity is the allegation that the service shouldn't allow Nestlé to use the water from Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest because the use permit in question expired in 1988.

Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity said, “It's inexcusable for the Forest Service to allow this piping system to continue year after year without a permit or any review of how it’s impacting wildlife or local streams.”

The suit claims that under the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the U.S. Forest Service cannot “allow operation and/or expansion of the West Strawberry Diversion Structures without a valid and current special-use permit.”

Nestlé was not the original permit holder but rather a “successor in interest to the original holder,” the suit says. The company uses a four-mile pipeline to bring the water from the forest to a bottling plant in Ontario. Nestlé USA is based in Glendale.

“California is in the middle of its worst drought in centuries and the wildlife that rely on Strawberry Creek, including Southwestern willow flycatchers and numerous amphibians, are seeing their precious water siphoned away every day,” she said  ” … The forest and the wildlife that live there deserve better.”

A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said, “We cannot discuss ongoing or pending litigation.” However, the service notes in a statement that Nestlé is applying to renew the water-use permit:

Under current Forest Service policy and regulation, Nestlé is authorized to transmit water across NFS [National Forest Service] lands under the terms of its original permit while the renewal application is processed.

The U.S. Forest Service also indicates that the state of California has the most to say about permission to bottle water from public lands:

The California Department of Public Health, Food and Drug Branch (FDB) does regulate the licensing of bottling plants and the State Water Board administers and regulates the diversion and use of water, including uses for water bottling.

The service says it's “working with Nestlé” to evaluate the environmental impacts that bottling water from the forest might have.

File photo of the San Bernardino National Forest.; Credit: The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company/Flickr

File photo of the San Bernardino National Forest.; Credit: The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company/Flickr

As you well know, we're in the midst of a historic drought. Mandatory water conservation means that cities like Los Angeles must cut back use by 25 percent.

A statement from the plaintiffs says that, in the meantime, “water levels at Strawberry Creek are at record lows” and that Nestlé pays only $524 a year to pull as many as 28 million gallons of water a year out of the forest.

“We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestlé has refused to step up and do its part,” says Michael O’Heaney, executive director of the Story of Stuff Project. “Until the impact of Nestlé’s operation is properly reviewed, the Forest Service must turn off the spigot.”

We reached out to Nestlé but had yet to hear back.

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