On Friday, California’s State Water Resources Control Board issued a draft Cease and Desist order against Nestlé, demanding that the beverage behemoth stop pumping millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest, which it then peddles as bottled water under its Arrowhead brand.
The order—which still requires official approval by the water board—is the culmination of a years-long battle between the company and environmentalists who say Nestlé has been siphoning water away from Strawberry Creek for next to nothing under a permit that expired in 1988. The thirsty mega-corp reportedly didn’t even bother with environmental impact studies during California’s last drought.
Nestlé must reply to the draft order within 20 days or the board may issue a final order, at which point the agency could begin assessing fines from $500 to $1,000 a day for every day the company has been taking water since a previous decree was issued at the end of 2017. Additionally, Nestlé would be required to “limit diversions from surface streams to its pre-1914 water right of 7.26 acre-feet per year” as well as submitting annual monitoring reports.
That 2017 order came on the heels of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups after a 2015 investigation by the Desert Sun which revealed that the U.S. Forest Service had been allowing Nestlé to continue piping water from the area under the expired permit.
“It is concerning that these diversions are continuing despite recommendations from the initial report, and while the state is heading into a second dry year,” Julé Rizzardo, assistant deputy director of the Division of Water Rights, said in a statement. “The state will use its enforcement authority to protect water and other natural resources as we step up our efforts to further build California’s drought resilience.”
Although the Forest Service granted a three-year permit to Nestlé in 2018, it could be rendered invalid if the water board issues a final order.
“The current permit and any future permits require the permittee to comply with state law, including its water rights. Otherwise the holder is in violation of the permit,” San Bernardino National Forest spokesman Zachary Behrens told the Desert Sun in an email.
In a letter to Nestlé Waters of North America, the board warned, “While Nestlé may be able to claim a valid basis of right to some water in Strawberry Canyon, a significant portion of the water currently diverted by Nestlé appears to be diverted without a valid basis of right.”
Nestlé recently sold its U.S. and Canadian spring water brands to private equity firms One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos & Co. for $4.3 billion, and will now be called BlueTriton, but Rizzardo says the sale will not hinder oversight and enforcement, no matter what name the parched entity chooses to operate under.
“We do not anticipate the sale of Nestlé Waters North America to affect the enforcement action moving forward,” he said. “While ownership of Nestlé’s parent company has changed, it’s our understanding that its day-to-day operations and management has not changed.”
For its part, BlueTriton claims the state’s findings “are contrary to California water rights law and a departure from long-standing [state water board] practice and precedent. It is our view that they have not fairly considered the extensive information and data we have provided to them.”
In a statement to Desert Sun, the company said, “For more than 125 years, BlueTriton Brands and its predecessors have sustainably collected water from Arrowhead Springs in Strawberry Canyon. We take pride in being good stewards of the environment, while providing an excellent product loved by Californians.”
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