The California State Water Resources Control Board on Friday sent a cease and desist letter to Nestlé, demanding the water bottling company stop “alleged unauthorized diversions and threatened unauthorized diversions from Strawberry Creek in San Bernardino County.”
The water Nestlé pulls from the San Bernardino National Forest, located in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, and is sold as the Arrowhead brand of bottled water, the Desert Sun reported. The Santa Ana River, where the water comes from, provides water for roughly 750,000 residents in the area, as well as wildlife.
Over the last few years, state and local officials accused Nestlé of illegally diverting water from local communities for bottling purposes. Although the company has water rights that date back to the mid-1800s, a state investigation discovered Nestlé is exceeding their water allocations. According to The Guardian, in 2020, Nestlé drew 58 million gallons of water, far surpassing the 2.3 million gallons the company is legally allotted per year.
“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,” the letter from the water board states.
According to the Desert Sun, “the U.S. Forest Service was allowing the company to pipe water from the national forest using a permit with a 1988 expiration date, and with no review of the environmental impacts during the state’s last severe drought.”
As California heads into the second year of a drought, water officials are concerned about Nestlé’s water operations.
“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 to L.A. Magazine. “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 water board could have slapped Nestlé with fines dating back to 2017, their first priority is getting the company into compliance with their permit.
“We didn’t issue a monetary penalty because the immediate priority is bringing Nestlé into compliance through the Cease and Desist Order,” water board spokesperson Ailene Voisin told the Desert Sun. “The order does not preclude the Board pursuing future penalties for violations.”
If the board decides to institute fines against the company, Nestlé could face a fine up to $1,000 a day for violating the order. If a drought is declared, that fine would increase ten-fold to $10,000 a day.
To complicate matters even more, Nestlé recently sold its U.S. and Canadian water brands to Blue Triton, a newly-formed company made up of private equity firms One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos & Co.
“We do not anticipate the sale of Nestlé Waters North America to affect the enforcement action moving forward,” Rizzardo told the Desert Sun. “While ownership of Nestlé’s parent company has changed, it’s our understanding that its day-to-day operations and management has not changed.”