Nestlé pumps drought-stricken taxpayers' water without a permit, sells it back to them

Lawsuit: Forest Service sits on its hands for 27 years

It rained this past week in Southern California, an event so unusual lately that in Palm Springs, residents ran into the streets to enjoy the phenomenon of rainwater falling on their heads.

But in general, the Southland is dry as a bone and the state has imposed Draconian restrictions to preserve what little water is available. So it irks environmentalists to no end that the U.S. Forest Service continues to allow Nestlé to pump water from the San Bernardino National Forest and bottle it under its Arrowhead Springs label.

The Center for Biological Diversity and others sued the U.S. Forest Service Tuesday, noting that Nestlé's special-use permit expired in 1988, Courthouse News Service reported.

Nestlé, which reported $92 billion in revenue last year, has been pumping about 66,000 gallons a day through its Strawberry Creek pipeline, Palm Springs' Desert Sun newspaper reported.

$15 million

Nestlé pays an annual fee of $524 for the water. It sells a 6-gallon case of Arrowhead for $3.74, which works out to about $15 million a year, not counting bottling and distribution costs.

Why is Nestlé allowed to pump precious water from taxpayer-owned land and sell it back to those very same taxpayers for next to nothing on an expired permit?

Good question.

The Forest Service first issued a permit to Nestlé in 1976. The permit expired in 1988 and Nestlé applied to renew it but, in the best federal tradition, the Forest Service just hasn't gotten around to doing anything about it for the last 27 years.

So, while it considers whether or not to renew the permit, Nestlé continues pumping away, draining precious water while proudly proclaiming on its label that the water comes from Southern California taxpayers' own backyard.

"Fresh taste"

"Local means fresh taste," the Arrowhead bottles burble. "Proudly sourced from mtn springs in the west for a crisp, fresh taste."

The water may taste OK, but the lawsuit argues that the diversion of water from Strawberry Creek harms and reduces habitat for protected plants and animals. It also "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.

Lead attorney for the groups is Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity's Oakland office.

How they voted