By Matthew Renda
The U.S. Forest Service granted Nestle a three-year permit to continue bottling water from a source in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles.
“The decision ensures that the water withdrawal and conveyance infrastructure is under a current permit, and it provides for protection of forest resources,” said Forest Service ranger Joe Rechsteiner in a prepared statement. “We are mandated by law to balance multiple uses of the land, however challenging that may be.”
Nestle’s operation takes water from Strawberry Creek in the national forest to bottle it and sell it under its “Arrowhead” line of bottled water. Environmentalists sued in 2015, claiming the entire operation was made possible by a permit initially approved in 1976 that had been expired since 1988.
The three parties at the heart of the dispute – Nestle, the forest service and the Center for Biological Diversity – agreed to a settlement in June, making the dispute over the previous permit moot as the forest service agreed to issue a new permit.
The permit announced Wednesday is an improvement over the previous one in terms of environmental concerns but prompts more questions than answers according to Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity attorney.
“It’s definitely a small improvement, but we would like to see more protections in place,” Belenky said in a telephone interview.
For instance, the new permit requires minimum flows in Strawberry Creek, but the center has not yet determined whether those flows are sufficient to sustain the ecosystem or if they’re the correct standard for determining whether Strawberry Creek is healthy.
“A lot of questions need to be answered as we delve into those numbers,” Belenky said.
Nestle hasn’t said whether it will act on the permit and continue to draw water from Strawberry Creek for the full term allowed but did say it was committed to studying the matter further.
“We will carefully review the specifics of the decision, and will continue to comply with all permit requirements,” said Alix Dunn, North American spokeswoman for Nestle Waters. “Our cooperation throughout this process includes conducting and providing the USFS with 70 separate environmental studies and reports.”
Belenky said the center will keep its options open as it analyzes the new permit. At the heart of any potential legal action would be whether the forest service had sufficient reason to grant an exclusion of more rigorous and public environmental review process.
The center says the forest service should have undertaken the full scope of the environmental analysis under the National Environmental Protection Act.
“There was a lot of work done to justify the exclusion of the permit review process, but not a lot of work done to ensure a more public process under a NEPA review,” Belenky said.
The forest service said a full analysis was unwarranted given the lack of endangered species affected by the project and because many of the measures the agency will take to offset impacts of taking the water are already in the plan guiding its action.
“I find that there are no extraordinary circumstances that would warrant further analysis or documentation in an EA or EIS,” said Rechsteiner in a 34-page agency decision memo that lays out the rationale behind the forest service’s permit approval. “This conclusion is based on the implementation of the required resource mitigation measures as supported by the Adaptive Management Plan.”
Rechsteiner said the public had ample opportunity to weigh in on the permit approval process, and the agency received more than 40,000 comments since the agency first began formal consideration in 2016.
Aside from the forest service permit, the California State Water Resources Control Board will also weigh in the matter. The state agency is currently looking into whether Nestle has been pulling more water from the stream then what their water rights allow.
Belenky said preliminary findings released by the water control board indicate Nestle may be drawing more water from Strawberry Creek than allowed, but said all parties will have to wait for a final determination.
Nestle said it understands the gravity of water issues in California.
“Californians are passionate about water and so are we,” Dunn, the company’s spokeswoman, said. “We take our responsibility as a California water steward seriously and Arrowhead’s successful operations for more than a century point to our commitment to long-term sustainability.”