Forest Service Sued Over Water Rights

Nestle continues to bottle water

Oct 15, 2015
Outside
Outside Magazine
California

“You have a private, for-profit corporation taking water at a super-cheap rate, sticking it in bottles, and selling it. The one thing everyone could agree on was that [Nestle's water rights] made no sense.”    Ron Kroetz / Flickr

Three advocacy groups brought a formal complaint against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on Tuesday for water diversion rights granted to Nestle Waters North America, Inc., in the federally owned San Bernardino National Forest, according to paperwork filed with the federal court. The Center for Biological DiversityStory of Stuff Project (SoSP), and Courage Campaign Institute (CCI) are listed as the plaintiffs.

The complaint alleges that the USFS issued a special-use permit in 1976 to the predecessor of Nestle (which claimed rights in 2004) for diverting water from the West Fork of Strawberry Creek. That permit expired in 1988, at which point an environmental survey should have been conducted to assess the impact of the water diversion, according to the National Forest Management Act. A survey was never completed, the permit was never renewed, and the advocacy groups say there is resulting damage to the area from continued diversion of millions of gallons of water each year despite an ongoing, severe drought in the state.

CCI launched a petition against Nestle’s water usage in the spring of 2015. According to Eddie Kurtz, executive director of CCI, the petition went viral and racked up 185,000 signatures. Combined with similar petitions from partner organizations, Kurtz said the total number of signatures has topped 500,000.

“You have a private, for-profit corporation taking water at a super-cheap rate, sticking it in bottles, and selling it,” Kurtz told Outside on Thursday. “The one thing everyone could agree on was that [Nestle’s water rights] made no sense.”

With the boost in public awareness, SoSP began researching the permit involved. According Michael O’Heaney, executive director of SoSP, the permit research began with two retired Forest Service employees who had their own concerns both before and after their employment.

“A lawsuit was our last resort,” O’Heaney told Outside. “We had hoped public pressure would convince either Nestle or the Forest Service to move forward on a permit review, at the very least. We didn’t see any action.”

Rachel Doughty, the lead attorney representing both CCI and SoSP on this case, said the organizations are requesting an immediate halt to water diversion and that a long-term USFS review be conducted. 

“The problem here is that [the USFS] has flipped the default,” Doughty told Outside. “Their default now is to let the water go off, and when they get around to it, then maybe they’ll review and take care of our public lands.”

Representatives from both Nestle and the USFS did not respond to Outside’s request for comment. 

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