In Drought-Stricken California, Nestlé’s Bottled Water Business Is Under Fire

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Nestlé's Arrowhead brand is sourced the San Bernardino National Forest, in drought-stricken California.

Nestlé is making waves across the West Coast this week for its bottled water business.

In drought-stricken California, the food and beverage conglomerate is under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service for using expired permits to use water from a national forest. And in Oregon, environmentalists are lamenting a move by the state that puts Nestlé one step closer to opening its first bottled water facility in the Pacific Northwest.

On Friday, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the small Columbia River Gorge town of Cascade Locks applied to trade water between the town-controlled wells and the state-controlled spring, opening the door for Cascade Locks to sell the spring water. The proposal to sell local water has been billed as a financial lifeline for the struggling town of only 1,245 residents, but it has also become a lightening rod for water and environmental activists in Oregon, who say the project will disrupt aquatic life and add unnecessary traffic to the small town.

The proposed Nestlé facility would provide 50 jobs and at least $135 thousand in property taxes a year to the former logging town, where unemployment is 18.8 percent, city administrator Gordon Zimmerman told ThinkProgress.

“It will make us solvent, we hope,” Zimmerman said. There are currently 30 other water-bottling facilities in Oregon, as well as several beer and juice companies operating near Cascade Locks, he said.

But some say that this project is different from others around the state. Alex P. Brown, executive director for the Mt. Hood National Forest advocacy group BARK, told ThinkProgress that this would be the first time the state has actively facilitated the sale of public water for bottling.

“People are not being listened to,” Brown said. “The response we just received from our state agency is: Let’s move the process faster, with a lower standard of public review.”

Brown’s group and its partner, Food and Water Watch, say that Nestlé is guilty of damaging the environment, bullying small towns, and making a fortune off a public good. “Nestlé has a reputation for pushing the limits of communities, and this is exactly the same thing,” Brown said.

BARK wants to promote an economic future for Mt. Hood-area communities that is long-term and sustainable, and “the components of the proposal are at odds with the other economic development goals in Cascade Locks,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, amid a severe drought, many Californians are also taking issue with Nestlé, calling for their state to look more closely policies for bottled water. In new water regulation issued by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month, Nestlé’s for-profit water withdrawals came out unscathed.

More than 135,000 people have signed a petition by Courage Campaign, an online activist organization in California, to stop Nestlé from bottling water during the drought. “These are our water savings accounts, and we’re drawing them down like their is no tomorrow,” Eddie Kutz, Courage Campaign’s executive director, told ThinkProgress.

Kutz said Oregonians should be careful who they give or sell water rights to.

“It’s very clear in California that a lot of these rights were given away willy-nilly a long time ago, and they were never reassessed,” he said.

It looks like he’s right. Last week, the Desert Sun revealed that Nestlé is withdrawing water from the San Bernardino forest under a permit that expired in 1988. The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the permit, has said it will make addressing the oversight a priority.

“Now that it has been brought to my attention that the Nestlé permit has been expired for so long, on top of the drought… it has gone to the top of the pile in terms of a program of work for our folks to work on,” San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron told the Desert Sun.

Nestlé did not immediately respond to requests for comment.