What is Nestlé Waters Hiding?
Nestlé Waters—the world’s largest water bottler—regularly touts the work its ‘natural resource managers’ do to ensure the health of the ecosystems where it gets its water. About its Arrowhead brand’s operations in the drought-impacted San Bernardino National Forest—where we’ve sued to stop the company’s removal of water—Nestlé says: “Our team regularly monitors spring water flows and environmental conditions at this site.”
But this week when we received the latest response to our year-old public records request over Nestlé’s operations in San Bernardino, a 2003 hydrological report prepared by a Nestlé consultant was completely blacked out.
The information was redacted, as the Forest Service kindly explained in a cover letter, because it contains privileged commercial or financial information about “Nestlé’s business and trade of collecting and transporting spring water.” Further, the letter explains, “Disclosure of the hydrology study will cause substantial harm to Nestlé’s competitive position,” specifically allowing “competitors to easily locate and tamper with Nestlé’s spring resources and associated infrastructure.”
Nestlé removed 36 million gallons from the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling last year in the midst of a historic western states drought; 36 million gallons removed under a permit that expired in 1988, with no significant Forest Service review of the company’s environmental impact in the 28 years since. The Forest Service receives a pittance in return.
Absent a single publicly available report on how Nestlé monitors the impact of their water take or any indication from the company as to what actions they’ve taken to protect our public lands or the plants and animals that depend on that water, we’re just expected to take Nestlé at its word.
As Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service biologist who has spent years studying San Bernardino’s Strawberry Creek ecosystem and regularly monitors water flows in the creek, said in an email to me this week, “How can they redact the hydrological studies, which are the basis for any future permit determination?”
Steve’s right. The question is: what are Nestlé and the Forest Service hiding from the public?
The answer may lie in an unredacted section of the same report—disclosed in the government’s response to us—which reads, “”The conservative assumptions of the hydrological study suggest that the wetted parameter is decreased 20-26% as a result of spring water harvesting.”
That’s a lot.
In mid-July, Steve Loe reported that “the combined flow of Strawberry and East Twin Creek was tied with the lowest flow ever recorded or modeled in the last 94 years,” and that “if things proceed similar to the last couple of years, the lowest flows ever will be recorded throughout the summer on the hottest, driest days.” Steve went on to write, “There will be significant losses of biological resources with this extreme drought and continued water removal.”
In another document in the batch, a 2003 paper by a Forest Service hydrogeologist, Manjiang Zhang explains the ‘Difference between a Spring and a Well’—an important distinction for Nestlé Arrowhead both because it markets Arrowhead as “spring water” and because state law treats the removal of groundwater differently from spring, or surface, water. As she writes:
“What will happen if a water-well is mislabeled as a spring in California? It can cause the landowner [in this case, the American people] to lose their right to the groundwater produced by the well; conversely, it can bring huge profits for a water user, if the user is not the landowner.”
The California State Water Board is looking into this very question with regards to the water right Nestlé claims and the question will be a central one during the Forest Service’s looming review of the company’s request for a new permit. If Nestlé is found to be taking ground water—which we believe it is—the Forest Service will have standing to stop their operation cold.
To illustrate the problem, Zhang uses the example of a “big commercial water company” with “large scale water-wells on a NF [National Forest] land” in southern California. It is clear she’s referring to Nestlé Arrowhead. The company, she writes, has an operation…
“…consisting of a deep vertical shaft and several horizontal-wells that extend radially hundreds of feet from the base of the shaft into the bedrock aquifer, so that each can yield water at a rate of 20 to 50 gallons per minute! Similar to that shown in the above example, the groundwater collected in the shaft is carried down to the mountain by gravity, no pumping is necessary. At the endpoint of the pipeline, the water is bottled and labeled as “spring water” by the water company. In that way, huge amounts of groundwater have been shipped out of the water-scarce region…day after day for decades. Since the water-wells are deliberately registered by the company as “springs” that are administered by the State, the National Forest has no right to the groundwater yielded from these wells, and has no surface water to share (as could be entitled by the State riparian right) neither, because these fake springs do not flow naturally in a surface channel. See, this is the legal consequences caused by mislabeling wells as springs.”
Regardless of the outcome of our lawsuit against the Forest Service, which could come any day, we know that a bottled water operation doesn’t belong on these public lands, particularly in the midst of an historic drought. That’s been clear for years.
Our job now is to ensure Nestlé and the Forest Service know that the public wants Nestle Arrowhead to leave the San Bernardino National Forest for good. More on that soon.