Dealing with Droughts, California Challenges Nestlé Over Water Use

After another dry winter that threatens to exacerbate water shortages across California, state officials have accused a water bottling company of draining too much water from forests in the San Bernardino area.

Officials released a draft cease and desist letter to the company last week – the latest in a struggle that has dragged on for years.

BlueTriton, known as Nestlé Waters North America until it changed name this month after it was acquired by a private equity firm, includes bottled water brands Poland Spring and Arrowhead.

In the letter posted on April 23, the State Water Resources Control Board said that “Nestlé will have 20 days from receipt of this notice” to respond. The process could result in a formal injunction and possible fines if formally approved by the board of directors.

“During the state’s historic drought, the State Water Board’s Water Rights Division received several complaints alleging Nestlé’s constant diversions of water had depleted Strawberry Creek,” said a statement referring to a waterway east of San Bernardino runs Los Angeles.

The water diversion led to a “reduction in the downstream drinking water supply and to effects on sensitive environmental resources”.

In a statement emailed, a spokesman for BlueTriton said the company was “disappointed” with the move and would pursue legal options to correct state officials “misinterpretation” of California law.

“For more than 125 years, BlueTriton Brands and its predecessors have been sustainably collecting water from Arrowhead Springs in Strawberry Canyon,” the company said. “We pride ourselves on being good environmentalists while delivering a great product that Californians love.”

Strawberry Creek isn’t the only place in California the company collects water, but it has become a focal point for local organizations, residents, and environmentalists – especially as California grapples with water scarcity, worsening droughts, and devastating forest fires.

“Should we really be pulling water from a national forest to put in plastic bottles and sell at a substantial premium?” said Michael O’Heaney, the executive director of Story of Stuff, an environmental protection group based in Berkeley, California that has filed complaints against Nestlé. “It’s a bad use of our resources.”

The U.S. Forest Service charges the company an annual fee of $ 2,100 to maintain its infrastructure in the Strawberry Creek area, according to The Desert Sun, which investigated Nestlé’s operations in California in 2015 and reported that the Forest Service allowed the company had to take water from the forest with a permit that expired in 1988.

Fighting over Nestlé – and now BlueTriton – diversion of water has been brewing for years. State officials released a report on Nestlé’s water collection in 2017 and a revised report last week. Both said the company diverted more water than allowed, which the company denies.

“This investigation took a long time and, because of its technical and legal complexity, took several years,” said Robert Cervantes, chief engineer with the state water board.

“We just want BlueTriton to comply with California law,” he said, “especially now that we’re approaching another drought.”

Water Authority officials argue that BlueTriton is only allowed to collect about 2.4 million gallons of surface water in the area annually. This restriction applies to water in streams and creeks and to sources that contribute to streams and creeks – not to water that seeps underground.

The company said it collected 59 million gallons from the water system last year, of which approximately 40 million gallons were returned to overflow in the area.

Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, has been involved in similar water collection battles in other states, including Florida and Michigan.

Critics of the company say its efforts to drain the natural water supply for bottling have been wasteful and that the bottles themselves add to plastic waste. For at least last year, the company has been considering selling most of its bottled water business in the US and Canada. The sale and renaming of Nestlé Waters North America are in line with this move.

The water drawn from California streams depletes the natural environment in an area that has already been prone to water scarcity and forest fires, O’Heaney said. The draft cease and desist letter sent to BlueTriton last week was a significant step, although it could not yet be officially enforced.

“I hope it’s a wake-up call for them,” he said, “that the business they just bought is not seen in a positive light by the communities in which it operates.”

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