Retired Forest Service employee Gary Earney pauses with his walking stick after hiking to Strawberry Creek, where a pipe carries spring water across the national forest to be bottled. Photo: Jay Calderon / The Desert Sun

By Gary Earney
2 May 2016

(Press Enterprise) – The United States Forest Service is proposing to issue Nestlé Waters North America a new five-year special use permit to continue water extractions from Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains next to Rimforest, on public land owned by you. In my professional opinion, that may damage national forest resources, including habitat for threatened, endangered and sensitive species, may preclude the area’s use as a critical wildlife refuge, and may not be in the public interest. Worse, proposing to have Nestlé itself conduct the environmental studies and monitoring necessary to determine whether or not a new special use permit should be issued to them, allows “the fox to guard the hen house” – it is plainly and simply unethical.

I retired from the San Bernardino National Forest as a professional forester with more than 30 years of service, and with recognized expertise in administering large, environmentally, and politically complex projects. For 23 years, until my 2007 retirement, I administered Nestlé’s old special use permit.

Draconian budget cuts (a 46 percent cut in 1981, and even further cuts in the early 1990s and 2000s) have made the Forest Service unable to adequately meet its basic charge of properly managing the public’s 650,000-acre forest.

Prior to the early 2000s, when the severe drought began, managing water withdrawals like Nestlé’s was not a priority issue. Nestlé’s special use permit expired in 1988, and has not been re-issued due to the above cuts, and to previously much higher priority work.

At times, Nestlé has extracted around 100,000,000 gallons a year, and has several times, unsuccessfully, asked the Forest Service for permission to add additional wells and increase that amount by up to 30 percent. According to an April 13th article in The San Bernardino Sun, Nestlé increased its 2015 water take by 29 percent over 2014. This, when Gov. Jerry Brown had asked all Californians to reduce their water usage by at least 25 percent.

Whether or not Nestlé has a state issued water right is not relevant, as such a right does not give its holder the authority to cross or use the land of another (in this case, national forest land) to access water. Importantly, that means that the Forest Service does not have to allow a use that damages the forest resource base. [more]

GARY EARNEY: Time to rethink Nestlé water permit

A water pipeline runs alongside Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. The pipe carries water from Arrowhead Springs to be bottled by Nestle. Photo: Jay Calderon / The Desert Sun

By Ian James
8 March 2015

(The Desert Sun) – Miles from the nearest paved road in the San Bernardino National Forest, two sounds fill a rocky canyon: a babbling stream and the hissing of water flowing through a stainless steel pipe.

From wells that tap into springs high on the mountainside, water gushes down through the pipe to a roadside tank. From there, it is transferred to tanker trucks, hauled to a bottling plant and sold as Arrowhead 100% Mountain Spring Water.

Nestle Waters North America holds a longstanding right to use this water from the national forest near San Bernardino. But the U.S. Forest Service hasn't been keeping an eye on whether the taking of water is harming Strawberry Creek and the wildlife that depends on it. In fact, Nestle's permit to transport water across the national forest expired in 1988. It hasn't been reviewed since, and the Forest Service hasn't examined the ecological effects of drawing tens of millions of gallons each year from the springs.

Even with California deep in drought, the federal agency hasn't assessed the impacts of the bottled water business on springs and streams in two watersheds that sustain sensitive habitats in the national forest. The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues, and of a regulatory system in California that allows the bottled water industry to operate with little independent tracking of the potential toll on the environment.

In an investigation of the industry's water footprint in the San Bernardino National Forest and other parts of California, The Desert Sun found that:

  • No state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by all of the bottled water plants in California, or monitoring the effects on water supplies and ecosystems statewide. The California Department of Public Health regulates 108 bottled water plants in the state, collecting information on water quality and the sources tapped. But the agency says it does not require companies to report how much water they use.
  • That information, when collected piecemeal by state or local agencies, often isn't easily accessible to the public. In some cases, the amounts of water used are considered confidential and not publicly released.
  • Even as Nestle Waters has been submitting required reports on its water use, the Forest Service has not been closely tracking the amounts of water leaving the San Bernardino National Forest and has not assessed the impacts on the environment.
  • While the Forest Service has allowed Nestle to keep using an expired permit for nearly three decades, the agency has cracked down on other water users in the national forest. Several years ago, for instance, dozens of cabin owners were required to stop drawing water from a creek when their permits came up for renewal. Nestle has faced no such restrictions.
  • Only this year, after a group of critics raised concerns in letters and after The Desert Sun inquired about the expired permit, did Forest Service officials announce plans to take up the issue and carry out an environmental analysis.

A growing debate over Nestle's use of water from the San Bernardino National Forest parallels other arguments in places from the San Gorgonio Pass to Mount Shasta. And those debates have turned more contentious as a fourth year of drought weighs on California's depleted water supplies. [more]

Bottling water without scrutiny


  1. Anonymous said...

    The USFS caters to profits. I worked for the Forest Service as a GS-12 for several years. Never did I see the Forest Service during my tenure turn away from a corporation.

    A revamp of the agency is desperately needed, the Peter Principle is firmly entrenched in management. Don't expect reform until the dead wood in the USFS is first removed.  


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