Concerns about the impact of California's bottled water industry boiled over after an investigation by the Desert Sun, a Palm Springs newspaper, revealed this March that Nestlé has been piping spring water from the San Bernardino National Forest with an expired permit since 1988 and raised questions about potential impacts on the ecosystem.
The permit in question is one of approximately 4,500 expired permits in the region including 1,200 that "involve some level of water usage," Forest Service spokesman John Heil explained in an email to NBC News.
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The backlog, he added, is due in part to the priority given to new infrastructure projects funded by various government economic stimulus initiatives.
The attention on Nestlé's permit bumped it to the front of the pile for renewal review. The process will take at least 18 months, Heil said. Meanwhile, Nestlé can continue to operate in the forest as long as the company continues to pay the annual fee of $524 on the expired permit and operate under its provisions.
"Even though it is allowable, there is just something that feels really wrong about it," Jay Famiglietti, a water expert with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the University of California at Irvine, said of Nestlé's ability to continue operating in the National Forest.
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"The whole issue really points to the archaic nature of water rights in California," he said. "The water rights that we honor have been in place over centuries and what fit 100 or 200 years ago no longer fits today."
Lazgin said Nestlé regularly monitors the impacts of its operations at the San Bernardino site and elsewhere in the state to ensure its spring water supply chain remains healthy and reliable. "We have a stake in all of this too," she said. To date, she said, the company's water sources remain healthy.