(CN) – Nestlé will temporarily stop pulling water from the San Bernardino National Forest according to the terms of a settlement reached in a long-running federal case on Wednesday.
A coalition of environmental groups, including The Center for Biological Diversity, agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Forest Service that will require the federal agency to decide within 30 days whether to renew the permit that allows Nestlé to siphon groundwater from public lands to be bottled and sold.
The settlement does not dictate either permit renewal or discontinuance; instead, insisting on an agency decision within the next month.
“This agreement stops Nestlé and the forest service from relying on a permit that expired 30-years ago, but Strawberry Creek still desperately needs protection,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The real tragedy is that Nestlé is sucking the creek dry to bottle water for profit, dooming plants and wildlife that have relied on it for tens of thousands of years.”
The suit dates back to 2015, when the environmental groups first filed a suit alleging Nestlé was relying on an expired permit while diverting large amounts of water from Strawberry Creek, located in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.
Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, was using the water it siphoned from the creek in its “Arrowhead” line of bottled water.
The Swiss company food and beverage company originally obtained the permit for the water diversion in 1976 and it was renewed in 1978 and 1981. The permit was set to expire in 1988, but Nestle continued to operate the diversion system, comprised of a series of diversion canals and wells (some as deep as 450 feet) with U.S. Forest Service permission during its review.
The environmental coalition called the permit a “zombie permit.” Nestlé collected as much as 162 million gallons during the period between the initial expiration of the permit and the present time, according to the center. Nestlé’s water distribution business alone was worth about $8.3 billion in 2016, according to public filings.
Meanwhile, the green coalition pointed to dramatically lower river flows at and around the site of Nestlé’s diversion operation, adding that the river has been further harmed by drought, groundwater seepage and other factors.
In 2017, despite a winter of heavy precipitation, the U.S. Geological Survey found that Strawberry Creek boasted the lowest flows since records began to be kept.
The case was pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when the settlement was reached. The agreement gives all parties the right to legal recourse after the forest service gives its decision within the next month.
The stipulation likely means the parties will be in court again, regardless of the forest service’s decision.
“If the Forest Service issues a new permit that again prioritizes Nestlé’s obscene profits over ensuring sufficient water remains to protect this fragile ecosystem — that will not be a viable solution,” said Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the California-based Courage Campaign Institute, one of the co-plaintiffs. “This fight will be far from over.”
The forest service is not the only agency interested in Nestlé’s operation, as the State Water Resources Control Board has also been investigating the extent of the corporation’s water operation and whether it was in conformance with the original permit and its amendments.
In a lengthy statement, Nestle spokesperson Alix Dunn said the company is glad the forest service will finally decide the permit.
“We greatly appreciate the work of these organizations to ensure that, 31 years after validly submitting a permit renewal application for transmitting water across federal land, the USFS will take action soon. As a federal court has determined, federal law states clearly that the prior permit remains in full force and effect, and so we vigorously dispute any inappropriate allegations made regarding our permit status.
“We appreciate the strong emotions on all sides of this issue, and have worked hard throughout this process to provide USFS with all requested information for them to be able to make a fully informed decision in this matter, including conducting approximately 70 separate environmental studies and investing more than $1.5 million to fund detailed environmental analysis. We have also submitted a voluntary Adaptive Management Plan to the USFS. This plan provides transparent, science-based methods for managing water collection at Arrowhead Springs and adjusting our operations when conditions meet interim triggers. We look forward to collaborating with the USFS to develop the final Adaptive Management Plan.”