SACRAMENTO (CN) - Despite devastating drought, the federal government allows Nestle to bottle and sell millions of gallons of water from a Southern California creek in a national forest with an expired permit, environmentalists claim in Federal Court.
The Center for Biological Diversity and others sued the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday, demanding that it stop Nestle from pumping water from San Bernardino National Forest in drought-stricken Southern California.
Nestle's special-use permit expired in 1988, the groups say, but Nestle - which reported $92 billion in revenue last year - is still diverting water from the west fork of Strawberry Creek in the national forest, and bottling and selling it under its Arrowhead Springs label.
Nestle is not a party to the lawsuit.
The company sent 25 million gallons of public water through its Strawberry Creek pipeline last year - about 66,000 gallons a day, according to The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. That comes to 73 acre-feet a year: enough water to supply the annual needs of 73 average homes.
Nestle paid $524 for the water - the annual fee the Forest Service charged it, in lieu of a permit, the environmentalists say. The Forest Service told the plaintiffs that the expired permit will remain in force until it renders a decision on renewal.
Arrowhead Springs water was selling online for $3.74 for a 6-gallon case Thursday morning. Without deducting the cost of production, that would bring Nestle $41,140 a day - more than $15 million a year.
The Forest Service issued a special-use permit in 1976 and amended it in 1978 and 1981, allowing Nestle to take water from Strawberry Creek, but it expired on Aug. 2, 1988 "and no new special use permit has ever been issued," according to the lawsuit.
Nestle applied to renew the permit, but the government never acted, the environmentalists say, which makes the water diversion illegal.
"Right now, it really feels like the primary emphasis is letting Nestle take water," attorney Rachel Doughty told The Desert Sun. "They've delayed the permit review for years and years and years, and let them continue to operate."
"Nestle has paid a nominal $524 annually to the San Bernardino Forest Service to operate its pipeline, nowhere near what the water it removes is worth," co-plaintiff Story of Stuff Project, a documentary filmmaker, says on its website.
"Nestle then turns around and sells that water back to Californians and others in plastic bottles, making millions in the process."
The lawsuit cites an April 7 letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture general counsel to Nestle, stating that "until the US Forest Service renders a decision on Nestlé's permit application, the current amended permit [the Permit] remains in full force and effect according to its terms, including those provisions requiring compliance with all relevant State and local laws, regulations and orders."
The complaint continues: "By this letter, the Forest Service has stated its intent to allow the unpermitted activities to continue indefinitely."
The U.S. Forest Service is a branch of the Department of Agriculture.
The plaintiffs say that Nestle's continued pumping of water from Strawberry Creek harms and reduces habitat for protected plants and animals, and "seriously affects summer flows in Strawberry Creek and the amount of life that the watershed can support."
Among the affected species are the Least Bell's vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher, California spotted owls, the two-striped garter snake, the southern rubber boa, and others.
Nestle has repeatedly worked on its Strawberry Creek diversion structures, which have 11 access points, with of tunnels, boreholes and horizontal wells drilled up to 490 feet deep into the mountains to collect water and divert it via a miles-long metal pipe to processing and bottling facilities, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs want the water diversions enjoined unless and until the Forest Service abides by the Federal Land Policy Management Act and other federal laws governing federal land use and water diversions. The third and final plaintiff is the Courage Campaign Institute.
Lead attorney for the groups is Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity's Oakland office. Doughty is with Greenfire Law, of Berkeley.
The defendants are the U.S. Forest Service, San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron and Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore.
Forest Service officials did not return calls seeking comment.
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