San Bernardino National Forest — An ongoing investigation by The Desert Sun into Nestle’s contentious bottled water operations in drought-stricken California first disclosed that the company’s permit to draw water had a rather astonishing expiration date that occurred over a quarter century ago, in 1988. Recently, the Sun reported an update in the investigation with a jaw-dropping twist: the Forest Service — not Nestle — is the agency primarily responsible for failing to renew Nestle’s permit.
In fact, judging by the government agency’s complete inability to even review Nestle’s long-expired permit — not to mention the lucrative job a retired Forest Service supervisor currently enjoys — there is an arguable case that collusion and corruption are at the heart of the entire issue.
Forest Service officials shirked their duty to review the company’s long-expired permit by conducting numerous meetings about what was needed to initiate necessary procedures — but never once followed through with a single proposition to completion. Even the basic legality of allowing a private company to use federal land for the extraction and bottling of water for profitable sale was once called into question by several officials.
“Forest Service — not Nestle — is the agency primarily responsible for failing to renew Nestle’s permit”
Letters, emails, and meeting notes clearly mark a number of instances where the review process and various studies of the environmental impact from continued collection of the spring water were initiated between 1999 and 2003 — but not followed up by any action. In fact, nothing in these documents offers definitive answers for the inexplicable lack of action onevery aspect of the Arrowhead permit. Forest Service officials have given plenty of excuses — citing everything from a tight budget to limited staffing — for the reason other concerns were given priority.
“The whole process of reauthorizing a permit can be pretty rigorous, and we just didn’t have the money or the budget or the staff to do that,”explained Gene Zimmerman, who had the role of forest supervisor at that time. “We were never able to budget to do that kind of work on the scale it needed to be done.”
Nestle Claims it has Water Rights — And Its Yes-Man Agrees
During a meeting in 1997, Forest Service officials informed David Palais of Nestle that they had made an inquiry with the state water board to confirm the company’s water rights to Arrowhead Springs.
For those unfamiliar with that term, California and much of the West use a seniority-based property rights model for water resources — but those who hold rights simply own the right to use the water, not the water, itself. The California Water Resources Control Board website states, “A water right is a legal entitlement authorizing water to be diverted from a specified source to be put to beneficial and non-wasteful use.”
Nestle maintains that its water rights are valid, and Zimmerman continues to back up this claim.
“I have allowed Arrowhead’s occupancy of National Forest land to continue until the permit can be re-issued”
Gary Earney, who was responsible for administering permits, told Palais they would determine proof of Nestle’s water rights within the year (1997), and if not, “we would be significantly down the road in an environmental process that would eventually determine whether we would either re-issue the permit (with take limits) or would deny such use and force removal of all current improvements.” According to the Sun, Earney claimed in an interview that “the issue of removing water without proper monitoring bothered [him].”
Though a lawsuit filed by an environmental activist in 2000 over Nestle’s “illegal extraction” of water from a national forest was mostly dismissed in court the following year, an appeal was filed over some lingering issues.
In December 2002, Palais emailed Zimmerman to ask if he would “sign a statement or Declaration basically acknowledging that you know about our water collection facilities, that we are not doing anything ‘clandestinely’ . . . that we have and continue to act within the spirit and intent of the (special use permit) and that we both acknowledge that Arrowhead is in the process of renewing the (permit).”
Zimmerman obliged and signed a letter on January 9, 2003 to Palais stating that although the 1976 permit“expired on Aug. 2, 1988, I have allowed Arrowhead’s occupancy of National Forest land to continue until the permit can be re-issued, based on its continued adherence to the terms of that permit, and its payment of the required annual fee.”