Nestlé: Prove Your Right To Our Water
Walking down a steep, overgrown Forest Service access trail in the San Bernardino National Forest, I focused on holding my footing in the five inches of snow still clinging to the ground from a storm the week before. Normally, I would wait for better conditions, but I eagerly navigated the switchbacks, rocky terrain, ice, and thorny brush. Ahead of me, I wanted to find a Nestlé Waters’ Arrowhead well site hidden away in Strawberry Canyon.
Nestlé pumps up to 162 million gallons1 of water from Strawberry Creek every year, and has done so since the 1930s regardless of drought conditions or impacts to endangered species. The company claims that it holds water rights to Strawberry Creek stemming from its corporate predecessors in the late 1800s, but the reality is not so simple.
Because Nestlé is operating on public land, the company must hold a special use permit granted by the Forest Service. And Nestlé had one…until it expired in 1988.
The Forest Service spent nearly 30 years avoiding the permit review process for a host of reasons, citing capacity issues and lack of funding. In the fall of 2015, The Story of Stuff Project and Courage Campaign sued The Forest Service for inaction on the expired permit. This forced an environmental review of the impacts that the Nestlé operation is having on the Strawberry Creek watershed. The lack of action by the Forest Service has allowed Nestlé to continue draining Strawberry Creek while paying a permit fee of a paltry $594 per year. (You can see the short movie we made about this here).
As I reached the well location, I looked around expecting to find this Strawberry Creek I’d heard so much about. But upon arrival, I could see that there hasn’t been free-flowing water in this area for quite some time. I could also see the stainless steel pipe stretching out of the locked well entrance, spray-painted with a white arrowhead symbol, and I followed its silver gleam down the side of the mountain. I put my ear to this pipe and, voilà!…I found the creek…coursing its way through the pipe system, into Nestlé’s trucks, to be transported to a nearby bottling facility.
What I didn’t find was a bubbling spring flowing naturally to the surface, as Nestlé claims on its website. Instead, there appears to be a horizontal bore well extending back into the mountain’s groundwater.2 The wellhead I observed is one of 12 in operation that drains our national forest 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The day before I visited the well, I sat in a crowded community center higher up the mountain in the small town, Twin Peaks. The League of Women Voters and Save Our Forest Association hosted this public meeting to discuss with the local community Nestlé’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for California’s water
The hosts invited Nestlé to participate in the meeting and defend their stance to the public, but the company didn’t show up. Instead it sent an overly-friendly letter from the company’s Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer (“It is wonderful that you are researching and thinking about water policy and resource management…”)…a letter that totally avoided the issue of draining Strawberry Creek altogether. (You can read it here).
Despite all of Nestlé’s claims that it holds a right to this water, it hasn’t publicly produced documentation that unequivocally and transparently demonstrates that right. The Story of Stuff Project and Courage Campaign recently engaged a legal team to investigate the validity of Nestle’s claims to a water right.
The night of the meeting, retired Forest Service biologist Steve Loe told the crowd that the Forest Service and Nestlé have enjoyed a chummy working relationship for years. But through our community’s action, we’ve successfully created a much healthier separation between corporate profit-seeking and public service.
Prompted by community pressure and thousands of comments from you, the Story of Stuff Community, the Forest Service’s permit proposal is currently under review and in the process of being evaluated for environmental impacts as a part of the National Environmental Policy Act, under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction. (Worried about the EPA? So are we.)
The energy I saw in the crowd of 100 people in the Twin Peaks community center to save Strawberry Creek from Nestlé is powerful. Folks in the U.S. and around the world are ready to truly flex their Citizen Muscles to stand up for their public resources. The opposition might be bigger, but together we are louder. They might be tough, but together we are stronger. We gave Nestlé the chance to answer to us last week, but instead no one came. In the coming weeks, we’ll be asking for your support of our new campaign, Nestlé: Prove Your Right.
Want to do more?
1. Public record obtained from San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.
2. The legal distinction between surface water and groundwater determines the type of water right and regulatory agency that monitors it. Read more about water rights here.