Nestlé Bottled Water Controversy Becomes Campaign Issue in California Race

The controversy over Nestlé’s bottled water operation in the San Bernardino National Forest has prompted a review of the company’s federal permit, a lawsuit and an investigation by California regulators. 

Now, Nestlé’s continued piping of water out of the San Bernardino Mountains has become an issue in a congressional campaign.

Ahead of the June 5 primary in the 8th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Marge Doyle is criticizing Rep. Paul Cook, the Republican incumbent, for supporting water legislation that she says would undermine the ability of state and federal authorities to limit how much water the company uses from the national forest.

Doyle has criticized the federal water bill HR 23, which was cosponsored by Cook (R-Apple Valley) and passed by the U.S. House in July 2017. She argues portions of the bill would hinder state authorities from restricting Nestlé’s water use to avoid potential harm to public lands, and would prevent federal agencies from putting limits on water use when issuing federal permits. 

“It essentially overrides all of the protections that California has put in place to protect our waters,” Doyle said. “It takes California’s ability to regulate its own water.”

Cook’s office did not respond to a phone call and multiple emails requesting comments on the issue. The campaigns of three other candidates, including Republican Tim Donnelly and Democrats Rita Ramirez and Ronald J. O’Donnell, didn’t respond to messages asking about their positions on the issue.

The legislation, which is dubbed the Gaining Responsibility on Water Act, has already run into other larger disputes over how water should be managed in California, and it has yet to be considered by the Senate. 

The bill, which doesn't specifically mention Nestlé or the use of water from national forests, focuses largely on the operations of major California water arteries including the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), who sponsored the legislation, said it would reform cumbersome federal laws that have curtailed water deliveries to California farmlands and “resulted in hundreds of billions of gallons of badly needed water being flushed into the ocean.” 

Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris opposed the legislation, arguing it would “weaken California’s ability to manage its own natural resources.”

Doyle, a registered nurse who lives in Joshua Tree, said she’s long been concerned about Nestlé’s use of water from the San Bernardino Mountains and feels it’s time to “make a bigger statement about the fact that this is essentially water theft.”

Doyle said she thinks it’s absurd that the U.S. Forest Service, which doesn’t charge a fee for the water, has been charging the company an annual permit fee of $624, while the company has been taking millions of gallons a year. Even during the height of California’s severe 2012-2017 drought, she said, Nestlé continued to pipe “as much as they wanted out of our district, out of our mountains, out of our state – for their profit.”

Nestlé’s use of water from the national forest has generated an outpouring of opposition, protests and a lawsuit since a 2015 Desert Sun investigation revealed that the U.S. Forest Service has been allowing the company to continue drawing water from the national forest using a permit that lists 1988 as the expiration date. 

The Forest Service subsequently announced a review of the permit and in 2016 released a proposal to grant the company a new five-year permit. The issue also prompted several complaints to the State Water Resources Control Board starting in 2015, which led to an investigation by water regulators into the company’s water rights claims.

State officials carried out a 20-month investigation and concluded in December that the company doesn’t seem to have valid rights for much of the water it’s been drawing from the forest north of San Bernardino. But Nestlé disputed the findings, arguing in a written response in February that it has rights to take at least 88 million gallons each year – nearly three times as much as the amount that ran through its pipes in 2016.

State officials are assessing comments that have been submitted in response to their investigation report, and they may “revise the report based on those comments,” said Tim Moran, a spokesperson for the State Water Board. He said the agency doesn’t make comments on pending legislation such as HR 23, given that the wording may change significantly before a bill is approved.

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