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US Forest Service sued over allegedly expired water permit

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) Environmental and public interest groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that the U.S. Forest Service is letting Nestle Waters North America bottle water in the San Bernardino National Forest on an expired permit.

Organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity are asking a federal court in Riverside to halt bottling operations at a Strawberry Creek diversion structure unless a new permit is obtained.

The groups said the prolonged drought in California combined with the bottling operation is affecting area wildlife. They said Nestle is bottling the water on a permit that expired 27 years ago.

"They're supposed to be making sure the ecology of those public lands is protected," said Rachel Doughty, an attorney representing the Story of Stuff Project and Courage Campaign Institute, which are plaintiffs in the suit. "They're not doing this."

The Forest Service declined to comment on the lawsuit but said Nestle has applied to renew its permit and can continue to operate while that application is pending. The process will take about 18 months, John C. Heil III, a spokesman for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Regional Office, wrote in an email.

Nestle Waters spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said the company could not comment on the lawsuit.

"We've been told we continue to have use of the permit," she said.

The plaintiffs said in a statement that the piping system siphoned about 68,000 gallons of water a day out of the forest last year.

They believe species, including Least Bell's Vireo and California spotted owls, could see their numbers increased with improved water supply, the lawsuit said.

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