Last month, California newspaper The Desert Sun published an investigation revealing that Nestlé Water’s permit to transport water across the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling has been expired since 1988. On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service announced it would make it “a priority” to reassess the permit, and that it might impose as-of-yet unspecified “interim conditions” on the bottling operation in light of the severe drought, The Desert Sun reports.
The fact that Nestlé has continued its massive water-bottling operation while the state struggles with crippling water shortages has become a sticking point for activists. A petition demanding Nestlé immediately stop bottling and profiting off California water has drawn 27,000 online signatures and counting, and last month activists reportedly blocked the entrances to Nestlé’s bottling plant in Sacramento.
Another investigation published last year by The Desert Sun found that after 2009, Nestlé Waters stopped submitting annual reports to local water districts about how much groundwater the company extracted for bottling. Since then, the local San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency has listed “a rounded estimate” in its own reports of 750 acre-feet, or 244 million gallons of water, extracted by Nestlé per year, according to the Sun. Reuters reports the company drew 50 million gallons from the Sacramento area alone last year.
No state agency is tracking exactly how much water is used by the 108 private water-bottling plants in California (of which Nestlé operates five), according to the Sun. Although Nestlé submits reports on its water usage to the Forest Service, the Service has not been closely tracking the volume of water leaving the San Bernardino National Forest, or the way the extraction impacts the environment, the Sun writes.
In response to the online petition, Nestlé Waters North America issued a statement saying that it used 705 million gallons of water last year, which the company says is about the same amount of water needed 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 statement read.
The latest Sun investigation also notes that the California Forest Service has never monitored the impacts of the bottled water business on streams in two watersheds that Nestlé draws from, which supply water to sensitive wildlife habitats. The Forest Service now says it plans to carry out an environmental analysis of the operations.
“Now that it has been brought to my attention that the Nestlé 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,” San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron told the Sun.
Renewing Nestlé’s permit could take up to 18 months, or more than two years, according to Noiron.
Nestlé says its bottling of spring water from the national forest isn’t causing environmental harm, and that it manages its water use for sustainability. A spokesperson told the Sun that the company plans to work with the Forest Service to facilitate the permit renewal.