Nestle to begin draining millions of gallons of Arkansas River water

If things go according to plan, in about a month someone at Nestle Waters North America will turn a valve and water will begin running out of a pipeline near Buena Vista and will splash into an empty 8,000-gallon tanker truck. It will take roughly an hour for the truck to fill, and then another truck will take its place. The water will run 24 hours a day, filling approximately 25 trucks each day, every day.

The trucks will drive 120 miles to a Nestle bottling plant in Denver where the water will be used to fill hundreds and thousands and millions of little plastic Arrowhead Springs water bottles, which will then be trucked to convenience markets, grocery stores, movie theaters, and sports palaces around the West. Each month, Nestle will fill roughly 40.4 million 16.9 ounce bottles with the water from the area’s Nathrop spring. By the end of a year, 65 million gallons of Arkansas Valley water will have been driven to Denver, bottled, driven somewhere else, and sold.

Not everyone is happy about this. Buena Vista and Salida have birthed a protest movement that has been more noisy than effective. By some estimates, 80 percent of the roughly 17,000 people in Chaffee County are opposed to this diversion of water. Still, when it came time to issue permits, the three-member Board of County Commissioners was unanimous in approving Nestle’s plans.

In the end, it was probably a combination of fear and Old-West style property rights values that carried the day for Nestle.

Commissioner Tim Glenn, the lone Democrat on the board, told a local reporter “Out and out denial of the permit… well you know what would’ve happened… we would have been sued.”

Commission Chair Frank Holman, on the other hand, thinks the Nestle deal is good for the county. “It is a good thing,” he said. “The county will get 12 to 15 new full-time truck driver jobs out of this. And those jobs are sorely needed,” he said.

Fifteen jobs and cash

The water itself comes from an underground aquifer. Nestle drilled wells and built a five-mile pipeline to deliver the water to a facility in Johnson Village, where its trucks can be filled. Because Nestle does not own the rights to haul off all of this water, it has leased augmentation water from the City of Aurora, which will be released into the Arkansas River about 15 miles upstream from where Nestle will be getting its water. Nestle’s water will come mostly from the underground aquifer, which also feeds springs that flow into the Arkansas. No one knows to what extent that flow will be curtailed.

Holman plays down concerns. He said that most of the water Nestle will be draining away would have flowed directly into the Arkansas, so the Aurora augmentation water more than makes up for what will be piped to Johnson Village and poured into trucks. He adds that the deal is now a matter of private property rights. Nestle now owns the land where the water originates, he said, and the company has leased the augmentation water to replace the water its carting away, so Nestle is well within its rights.

“Nestle is a good neighbor,” he said. “They are giving us money to help with schools. They are creating a conservation easement on their land. And they are creating river access for fishermen.”

Nestle has given $500,000 to two local school districts as an endowment from which the districts can spend the interest or earnings. The company has verbally promised to create a conservation easement on most of the land it has purchased, but no easement has yet been recorded.

Once the water starts pumping

Sarah Olson, producer of the award-winning documentary “Tapped,” which explores the world of bottled water, said that when Nestle comes to an area, the company often seems like good neighbors to small towns that need jobs and money but, in the end, residents take a different view.

She said that Nestle has a history of pumping more water than its permits allow. “Every situation is different, but a lot of things that are in the agreements between Nestle and any community are difficult for the community to monitor. Once the agreements are signed and Nestle begins pumping water, it is so easy for Nestle to take advantage of people and it is so difficult to stop them.”

The permit issued to Nestle by the county contains 44 conditions that Nestle needs to meet. “We all tried to impress on the commissioners that Nestle would agree to the conditions and then ignore them. The oversight issue is very real. Nestle will probably follow the conditions for a while, but two or three years down the road, who knows?” said John Graham, president of Chaffee Citizens for Sustainability, a group formed specifically to oppose the Nestle deal.

Nestle spokesperson Catherine Herter told the Colorado Independent that the company enjoys a good, collaborative relationship with the Chaffee County community, but she referred most specific questions to someone else, who so far has not returned calls for comment.

Nestle has spent more than $4 million purchasing real estate along the Arkansas. Some of that land has been drilled for wells. It also purchased a little over an acre in Johnson Village. The company originally planned to bottle water from two sources, but one of the sources proved unsuitable, and that is the land, surrounding Big Horn Springs, that may become part of a conservation easement.

Nestle is paying Aurora $160,000 a year for the water. The amount paid increases 5 percent a year for the first 10 years of the lease. After 10 years, Nestle has the option of requesting a second 10-year term. If Aurora agrees, the price will increase 3 percent a year for the final 10 years. Nestle can break the agreement at any time. Aurora can only break the deal if it can demonstrate that it needs the water for its own uses. The Aurora City Council voted 7 to 4 to approve this deal last year.

“The thing that gets me most fired up,” said Graham, “is how illogical it is to take our water, pipe it five miles to a truck plant, send 25 trucks of it to Denver every day, and then put it in plastic bottles. Considering that anyone can just turn a tap in their home and get the same water. It is just absurd.”

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