The deadline for filing comments about the State Water Resources Control Board’s controversial ‘Report of Investigation’ for Nestle’s water mining in the San Bernardino Mountains has been extended to Feb. 9, from Thursday, Jan. 25, allowing environmental groups, individuals and Nestle more time to perfect arguments in an effort to shape the direction of the final report.
The long-awaited Dec. 20 report, which provides recommendations — but orders nothing — is the result of complaints about Nestle’s water withdrawals in remote Strawberry Canyon, located high in the San Bernardino National Forest above San Bernardino.
The Dec. 20 report “is a good start. The board staff did a good job,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been among the groups to file a so-far unsuccessful federal lawsuit to stop Nestle’s water withdrawals from the San Bernardino Mountains.
“We will certainly be asking some clarifying questions” during the comment period, she said.
The report is a result of complaints against Nestle’s water bottling operations going back to April 2015. The complaints range from diversion with an expired permit during a time of drought to unauthorized diversion, injury to listed species and incorrect (water rights) ownership information.
Environmentalists hear a ticking clock as they look at the time lapse from the first complaint to the December 2017 report.
Meanwhile, Strawberry Creek went dry for the first time in parts of 2017, said Steve Loe, a retired San Bernardino National Forest biologist who has been an activist opposed to Nestle’s operations for years.
Group seeking to keep state engaged on wildlife
The State Water Board report says that concerns about the effect of Nestle’s water withdrawals on species rest with the Forest Service.
“The Forest Service is the appropriate agency to address the environmental impacts in this case,” the report says.
“Should information become available indicating that Nestle diversions are injuring environmental resources that will not be mitigated, the Division (of Water Rights) may further investigate the possible injury under its public trust authority and determine if other appropriate remedies are necessary,” the report says.
Loe, a Yucaipa resident, said he and other members of the Southern California Fresh Water Fauna Working Group, are preparing comments advocating that the State Water Board exercise its public trust role now and stay engaged with the species preservation issue.
The working group is a decades-old organization comprised of mostly government agency and university biologists, Loe said.
Neslte seeking to validate more water rights
At one point, the report says that Nestle Waters North America “must limit its appropriative diversion and use of water to 26 acre-feet annually unless it has evidence of valid water rights to water within the permitting authority of the State Water Board” or evidence for rights to other water sources.
In another area, the report says that Nestle may have additional long-standing rights to 126 acre-feet of groundwater in Strawberry Creek.
How does Nestle respond?
“The State Water Resources Control Board Report acknowledges that we have a valid, pre-1914 surface water right for 26 acre-feet per year, as well as long-standing rights to 126 acre-feet per year of groundwater, for a total of 152 acre-feet per year,” said Alix Dunn, a Nestle spokeswoman. “We have not been asked to stop collecting water, and we will continue to operate lawfully under our existing rights.”
“In addition to having rights to the 152 acre-feet per year affirmed in the initial SWRCB report, we believe we have valid rights to additional water in Strawberry Canyon. We are working to provide the SWRCB staff with the historical data to validate our additional water rights, including century-old documents to the extent they are available. In the meantime, we will continue to comply with all applicable laws with respect to our water collections,” Dunn said.
From 1947 to 2015, Nestle’s extractions from springs in the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling in Ontario, under the Arrowhead label, has averaged 192 acre-feet, or 62.6 million gallons annually, the State Water Board said.
On January 17, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, the water wholesaler for nearly 700,000 people from Yucaipa to Bloomington, formally asked the State Water Board for assistance in crafting a document to have Nestle compensate the San Bernardino-based district for its alleged over-appropriation of water.
Much of the Nestlé controversy swirls around a special-use permit, for which Nestlé pays the Forest Service $524 annually for its piping and other hardware necessary for water extraction, that expired in 1988.
As part of U.S. Forest Service regulations, however, these kinds of permits stay in effect until they are renewed or denied.
For more information about the State Water Board’s Report of Investigation, visit: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/enforcement/complaints/nestle.html.
By Jim Steinberg,
(c)2018 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.)
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