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Know the West

Hundreds of lapsed permits found on Forest Service land

Expired water permit for Nestlé draws attention to flawed federal supervision.


California’s water system has a leak. Well, it probably has a few but one in particular has drawn attention over the past weeks.

Nestlé, the candy and drink giant, has been pumping water in southern California, for more than a century, to bottle and sell. Now, it turns out their permit to transport that water expired more than two decades ago and what’s more, there are hundreds in a similar state in California and likely even more across the West.

Permits like Nestlé’s fall into a category of Forest Service authorizations known as “special use,” a designation that covers everything from water pipelines to highway maintenance stations, ski areas, and mailboxes. Nestlé has been pumping water from San Bernadino springs since at least 1906 and the current permit was issued in 1958.

According to the Desert Sun, which first reported on the expired permit in March and uncovered the other expired California permits, Nestlé pumped around 25 million gallons out of Strawberry Canyon, in the San Bernadino National Forest in 2014. That's roughly 68,000 gallons a day. For some perspective, the state’s daily water use is almost 56,000 times that: 38 billion gallons a day. And Nestlé estimates that all of its pumping for bottled water (which includes other permitted springs) makes up less than 0.008 percent of the state’s total water use.

The natural arrowhead-shaped bare patch visible on a hillside in San Bernadino County is the namesake of Nestlé's Arrowhead bottled water, at the center of the pumping controversy.
Courtesy of michael c/Flickr.

So why does it matter if they’re pumping without supervision? Location, says Ileene Anderson, of the Center for Biological Diversity. The forest’s springs and the riparian habitat they support are important to ensuring species survive. If the forest's streams are dewatered, the impacts are more acute than further downstream.

“The streams at the lower ends are so fragmented,” said Anderson. "The water in the forest is a public trust resource and they have a mandate to protect the species as well."

But it’s also the fact that Nestlé’s permit hasn’t been revisited since it expired in 1988. Since the pipes were first installed in the early 20th century, there have been substantial changes to the environmental review process and the state's water situation has deteriorated. Gary Earney, who used to oversee special uses permits in the San Bernadino National Forest, says the Forest Service now does a much stricter review of potential fallout from permitted uses.

“When a permit is issued nowadays, an environmental assessment of some type has to be done,” Earney says. “Permits that have expired have uses in place that, in all likelihood, haven't been assessed for impacts.”

Nestlé’s permit isn’t the only expired water use permit. The Desert Sun found 1,108 water-related permits for use in California national forests and over half had passed their expiration date. On average, the expired permits had an end date of over a decade ago.

And it’s not just California’s national forests that are facing a backlog. I contacted regional offices and found that Region 4 of the Forest Service, which includes Utah, Nevada and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, has, in total, 1,524 water-related permits. Of those, 241 have expired. For Region 3, which encompasses Arizona and New Mexico, roughly one-sixth of the 591 water-related permits were expired.

Earney, the former forest manager, says that backlog is thanks to decades of slashed budgets and staffing shortfalls.

“The Forest Service doesn't have this mess because it's negligent,” Earney says. “It has this mess because of budget cuts.”

A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General came to the same conclusion. The report’s authors laid the blame for deficient supervision on insufficient funding and staffing. The Forest Service “lacks the resources it needs to properly manage the Special Use Program,” the inspectors wrote. The report acknowledged that was in part due to legislative budget cuts, but it also took the Forest Service to task for failing to charge market rates for land use authorizations or even adjusting for inflation. Similar issues have arisen for grazing and oil and gas on federal lands.

Inspectors found that more than 5,900 special use authorizations nationwide, including ones not related to water, had expired but were still listed as active. And few of the permits had been inspected since they were issued. When inspectors from the Department of Agriculture Interior visited sites themselves, they found a host of violations, including one instance where a permit-holder had diverted an entire stream, rather than a small portion of it. 

As for Nestlé’s permit, the onslaught of public attention has forced Forest Service officials to revisit its authorization. Nestlé objects to the characterization of "expired," since the permit will remain in effect during the reauthorization process. And as for the rest of the backlog, it’s not clear when and if it’ll be addressed.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her  Homepage photo courtesy of Doc Searls/Flickr