The man who authorised Nestle’s ability to use federal land in California to extract water for commercial use, Gene Zimmerman, has now been hired by the company as a consultant.
An ongoing investigation by The Desert Sun into Nestle’s contentious bottled water operations in drought-stricken California first disclosed that the company’s permit to draw water had a rather astonishing expiration date that occurred over a quarter century ago, in 1988. Recently, the Sun reported an update in the investigation with a jaw-dropping twist: the Forest Service — not Nestle — is the agency primarily responsible for failing to renew Nestle’s permit.
In fact, judging by the government agency’s complete inability to even review Nestle’s long-expired permit — not to mention the lucrative job a retired Forest Service supervisor currently enjoys — there is an arguable case that collusion and corruption are at the heart of the entire issue.
Forest Service officials shirked their duty to review the company’s long-expired permit by conducting numerous meetings about what was needed t0 initiate necessary procedures — but never once followed through with a single proposition to completion. Even the basic legality of allowing a private company to use federal land for the extraction and bottling of water for profitable sale was once called into question by several officials.
Letters, emails, and meeting notes clearly mark a number of instances where the review process and various studies of the environmental impact from continued collection of the spring water were initiated between 1999 and 2003 — but not followed up by any action. In fact, nothing in these documents offers definitive answers for the inexplicable lack of action onevery aspect of the Arrowhead permit. Forest Service officials have given plenty of excuses — citing everything from a tight budget to limited staffing — for the reason other concerns were given priority.
“The whole process of reauthorizing a permit can be pretty rigorous, and we just didn’t have the money or the budget or the staff to do that,” explained Gene Zimmerman, who had the role of forest supervisor at that time. “We were never able to budget to do that kind of work on the scale it needed to be done.”
Nestle Claims it has Water Rights — And Its Yes-Man Agrees
During a meeting in 1997, Forest Service officials informed David Palais of Nestle that they had made an inquiry with the state water board to confirm the company’s water rights to Arrowhead Springs.
For those unfamiliar with that term, California and much of the West use a seniority-based property rights model for water resources — but those who hold rights simply own the right to use the water, not the water, itself. The California Water Resources Control Board website states, “A water right is a legal entitlement authorizing water to be diverted from a specified source to be put to beneficial and non-wasteful use.”
Nestle maintains that its water rights are valid, and Zimmerman continues to back up this claim.
Gary Earney, who was responsible for administering permits, told Palais they would determine proof of Nestle’s water rights within the year (1997), and if not, “we would be significantly down the road in an environmental process that would eventually determine whether we would either re-issue the permit (with take limits) or would deny such use and force removal of all current improvements.” According to the Sun, Earney claimed in an interview that “the issue of removing water without proper monitoring bothered [him].”
Though a lawsuit filed by an environmental activist in 2000 over Nestle’s “illegal extraction” of water from a national forest was mostly dismissed in court the following year, an appeal was filed over some lingering issues.
In December 2002, Palais emailed Zimmerman to ask if he would “sign a statement or Declaration basically acknowledging that you know about our water collection facilities, that we are not doing anything ‘clandestinely’ . . . that we have and continue to act within the spirit and intent of the (special use permit) and that we both acknowledge that Arrowhead is in the process of renewing the (permit).”
Zimmerman obliged and signed a letter on January 9, 2003 to Palais stating that although the 1976 permit“expired on Aug. 2, 1988, I have allowed Arrowhead’s occupancy of National Forest land to continue until the permit can be re-issued, based on its continued adherence to the terms of that permit, and its payment of the required annual fee.”
The Big Hassle of Permit Review
A meeting of a team of six Forest Service officials at a ranger station in 2003 came closest to an actual review of Nestle’s permit. Notes from the meeting show plans had been made to go over the company’s records and create a course of action for the “Arrowhead Water Project” the following fiscal year.
But nothing ever came of it.
Steve Loe is a biologist who attended that meeting. He explained, as reported in The Desert Sun, that Nestle had been pushing for the review for some time, but the full scope of energy and expense the process was going to require seemed daunting to officials who “made a big deal of it” during the meeting.
“It should have been dealt with then,” said Loe, but “I think it was more convenient for Nestle and the Forest Service to not take action on that permit.” From that point on, Nestle representatives “didn’t continue to ask for that, and the Forest Service didn’t push them. It just died after that meeting.”
UPDATE: While Zimmerman claimed that the permit process was too troublesome to address Nestle’s claim over the Arrowhead water, that didn’t stop the Forest Service from scrutinizing hundreds of cabin owners’ water permits in the area. In fact, dozens of cabin owners were denied their renewal and were instead forced to install water tanks on their properties and truck water in.
Why Bother With a Permit When You’re a Darn Good Steward of the Land?
During his stint as supervisor, Zimmerman said he remembered discussing permit renewal with Nestle managers.
“We just said we couldn’t get to it with our workload and our budget and our staff that we had, especially when they were being what all of us agreed were pretty darn good stewards of the land,” said Zimmerman.
He should know.
Along with Nestle’s natural resource manager, Larry Lawrence, Zimmerman is a long time member of the board for the nonprofit Southern California Mountains Foundation. Zimmerman played a key role in helping launch the foundation — which is dedicated to youth initiatives and programs focused on the national forest — back in 1993.
And don’t forget who happens to be the foundation’s most noteworthy longtime donor — Nestle.
Shocking to absolutely no one, on the foundation’s 20th anniversary in 2013, the Zimmerman Community Partnership Award — so named for Zimmerman’s efforts “to create a public/private partnership for resource development and community engagement” — was presented to Arrowhead.
Not so coincidentally, Zimmerman, who retired in 2005, has since found gainful employment — as a paid consultant for Nestle.
Nestle Knows What Constitutes a “Spring” — Does it Matter to Them?
About two dozen water scientists and experts joined several top Nestle executives recently in a Beverly Hills hotel for a dinner and discussion to brainstorm new solutions for dealing with California’s drought-induced water crisis. Hosted by The Atlantic and underwritten by Nestle, dialogue focused on topics such as increasing water recycling and adjustments in pricing with conservation in mind. Informal question and answer sessions with the executives followed the main event.
Tim Brown, Chairman, CEO, and President of Nestle Waters North America, explained that the Food and Drug Administration’s role in regulating bottled water means companies that wish to use terms such as “spring water”for their product are held to strict guidelines without exception.
“Our FDA regulations define spring water as groundwater that reaches the surface on its own, and so for us to be able to meet that definition, the aquifer has to be performing that way,” explained Brown. “On any given day, if the flow is low enough that it wouldn’t meet the FDA definition of spring water, that’s when we would restrict flow. If there’s any other defined set of conditions that lead to an agreed up restriction of flow, we would follow those terms and conditions.”
Clearly, Brown knows precisely what the FDA expects from Nestle for the company to continue using “spring” in the title of its Arrowhead bottled water — but what the company understands to the letter in a public setting isn’t representative of the “shades of gray” reality of its operations.
Do As We Eloquently Say, Not As We Covertly Do
Loe and Earney have also since retired, but — as if consciously choosing the antithetic to Zimmerman’s adopted “yes-man” consultant role — the pair have called for long overdue environmental impact studies to begin and for the Forest Service to freeze Nestle’s water extraction until further notice.
A journalist from the Sun hiked with them through the national forest to the spot where a stone bunker with metal doors juts out from the side of a mountain — the site where Nestle draws water for Arrowhead. This is also the site where Brown’s knowledge of a “spring” begins to take on the appearance of smug diversionary mollification.
Nestle taps water from four wells at this site that were drilled horizontally into the mountain — but this arrangement is a far cry from the FDA’s “spring” requirements, which the company claims adherence to.
“That’s their goal, is capturing all the groundwater,” Loe warned. “There may have been a spring here, but not four separate springs all coming together.”
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