We perish because we know not… #TLENews
U.S. Forest Service officials on Friday said they are making it a priority to examine a long-expired permit that Nestle has been using to pipe water out of a national forest to use for bottled water.
Nestle Waters North America has long drawn water from wells that tap into springs in Strawberry Canyon north of San Bernardino. The water flows through a pipeline across the national forest and is hauled by trucks to a plant to be bottled as Arrowhead 100 percent Mountain Spring Water.
In an investigation last month, The Desert Sun found that Nestle’s permit to transport water across the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988 and that the Forest Service hasn’t assessed the impacts of the bottled water business on streams in two watersheds that sustain sensitive habitats.
“Since this issue was raised and I became aware of how long that permit has been expired, I have made it a priority to work on this reissuance project,” San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron said in a telephone interview.
Forest Service officials recently announced plans to take up the issue and carry out an environmental analysis after a group of critics raised concerns in emails and letters, and after The Desert Sun inquired about the expired permit.
“Now that it has been brought to my attention that the Nestle permit has been expired for so long, on top of the drought… it has gone to the top of the pile in terms of a program of work for our folks to work on,” Noiron said.
Under another permit that has been expired since 1994, the Cucamonga Valley Water District draws water from Deer Canyon Springs in the national forest. The water agency, in turn, has a contract with Nestle and has been selling that water for bottling.
Noiron said she also recently learned about the water district’s expired permit and is making it a priority for her staff as well.
“The first time really I was aware of it was when it came out of the emails and letters,” Noiron said. “So that one also has gone to the top of the pile for us to deal with.”
Forest Service officials say they have contacted the water district’s managers to discuss the permit and whether they want to renew it. Officials at the water district weren’t available on Friday to discuss their plans.
The process of renewing such permits requires an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which Noiron said can take as little as 18 months, or more than two years.
Given the severity of the drought, she said, officials at the national forest are also considering whether to impose some type of “interim conditions” while they work through the permit renewal process. She said it’s not yet clear what sorts of interim measures might be necessary while the Forest Service carries out environmental reviews.
Steve Loe, a former Forest Service biologist, has led calls for an immediate halt to Nestle’s use of water from Strawberry Canyon and Deer Canyon. He has argued that urgent measures are needed to protect the flows in stream, particularly during the dry summer months, until an independent study can be carried out.
Nestle insists its bottling of spring water from the national forest isn’t causing any harm. The company, a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Nestle SA, is the largest producer of bottled water in the United States.
Nestle says it monitors the environment around the springs where it draws water and manages the amounts it uses for sustainability. The company has pointed out that astream gauge downstream from the springs in Strawberry Canyon has continued to record flowing water.
Jane Lazgin, a spokeswoman for Nestle Waters, said in an email that the company is committed to working with Forest Service officials during the permit renewal process.
Randy Moore, the Forest Service’s regional forester in California, said the agency doesn’t traditionally track the amounts of water used by permit holders such as Nestle.
“This is the state’s responsibility to track the water use,” Moore said. “We’re looking more at what needs to stay in the system and to make it productive, environmentally sound.”
He said that as the Forest Service carries out the environmental review, the agency will study the impacts of removing water on the natural environment in the national forest.
The Forest Service has been dealing with a backlog of expired permits. In the San Bernardino National Forest, officials said their priorities over the years have included the aftermath of wildfires and floods, as well as permits for power lines, oil and gas pipelines, a new rail line through Cajon Pass, and a new water supply tunnel for the Metropolitan Water District.
Noiron, who has been supervisor of the national forest for four years, said that during her tenure the staff has been “pretty bombarded” with other high-priority projects.
She said the expired permits for water pipelines, including those that carry water for Nestle’s bottling operation, are now higher on the agenda due to “the discussion about them lately.”
Some lawmakers and environmental groups have expressed concern about the expired permits and also about the lack of government oversight in tracking the amounts of water being tapped and the effects on the environment.
One group, Courage Campaign, last month launched an online petition in response to recent news coverage, demanding that Nestle stop bottling water in California during the drought. The petition, which is directed to the State Water Resources Control Board, reads: “While California is facing record drought conditions, it is unconscionable that Nestle would continue to bottle the state’s precious water, export it, and sell it for profit.”
Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the California-based advocacy group, said more than 135,000 people have added their names to the petition.
“Every time someone signs the petition, it deploys an email to Nestle and also to the water board,” Kurtz said in a telephone interview from Oakland. “At a certain point we cap them and then we send a group email at the end of the day so that they don’t mark us as spam.”
“It’s really one of the most viral petitions we’ve done in a long, long time,” Kurtz said. “It just went bonkers. … Anything around water right now is just creating an incredible amount of public interest.”
Nestle Waters North America responded to the petition in a statement, emphasizing that its total water use in California last year — about 705 million gallons — is roughly the amount of water it would take to irrigate two golf courses.
“While responsible management is expected and essential, bottled water is such a small user that to focus on our industry as a material concern in water policy debates is misguided,” the company said.
“We will continue to monitor and report our water use and work with federal, state and local regulatory agencies and other stakeholders to ensure our activities do not significantly impact the watersheds in which we operate,” Nestle said. “We support comprehensive, transparent and balanced oversight for all water users.”
Noiron said that in response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s order for a statewide 25 percent cut in urban water use, the Forest Service plans to work with the state “to determine how best to manage the impacts of the current drought on water uses.”
She said that would include imposing any measures that fit with the state’s evolving restrictions.
Moore added that the drought is prompting the Forest Service to “sit down with the state and look collectively at some options for us to consider in light of what’s going on with the drought.”
Noiron said officials have yet to start their environmental analysis for the expired permit and for now are gathering information, including studies that Nestle has carried out.
“We will assess what the impacts are of their use on the national forest and use that information to make the decision on whether or not a renewed permit should be issued,” Noiron said, “and if it is issued, what the terms and conditions of that permit would be to protect the natural resources.”
She said when the permit was issued to Arrowhead in the 1970s, the current environmental laws weren’t in place. In the process of renewing the permit, those new laws now come into play.
“Using science, we have to assess, what is an adequate flow of water to remain in the natural system to protect the natural resources and support the watershed?” Noiron said. “And then that’s what has to stay in the system.”