Aurora may not have right to sell water to Nestle

Last year, the city of Aurora made a deal to lease 65 million gallons of water to Nestle. In making the deal, the city council moved against the city’s culture of water conservation, bypassed the Aurora Citizen Water Committee, alienated one of the city’s vital water partners and also may have violated the terms of its rights to Arkansas Basin water–all for a mere $160,000 per year, a fraction of the profits Nestle will reap from bottling the water and selling it across the mountain west and beyond.

Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, a key Aurora water partner and one angered by the deal, told the Colorado Independent it’s not clear Aurora has the right to lease water to Nestle.

“Water is decreed for specific uses in specific areas. Aurora’s water rights in the Arkansas Basin were decreed for their use in their municipality,” he said.

Scanga said that even though Aurora appears to have plenty of water right now, that can change fast and that leasing away even relatively small amounts may put Aurora into a situation where it needs more water sooner than if it had not agreed to the Nestle deal. If that happens, water flows in the Arkansas River would be reduced at a time when flows are already low.

The terms of Aurora’s water deal and the details surrounding how it came about are gaining increasing interest. Proponents of the deal say the numbers involved in the deal– the tens of millions of gallons of water in particular– have drawn attention but that they have to be placed in context.

The 65 million gallons Nestle will drain away is equal to 200 acre-feet, which is how water is measured by large users. It amounts to 200 acres of water 1 foot deep. That sounds like a lot– and if measured by the 25 Nestle trucks each holding 8,000 gallons water that will soon begin running every day between Buena Vista and Denver, it is a lot.

Greg Baker, manager of public relations for Aurora Water, told the Independent that, in fact, the city is leasing only a small percentage of excess capacity to Nestle and that if a situation arises where Aurora needs the water for its own uses, it can temporarily shut down the Nestle operation.

Baker said that Aurora has storage capacity of 155,000 acre-feet of water in various reservoirs, so 200 acre-feet may not matter one way or another to the city.

Opponents of the deal point out that, in striking the agreement with Nestle, the Aurora City Council bypassed the city’s Citizen Water Advisory Committee and voted on the lease without informing the committee it was even considering the move.

Baker defends the decision to bypass the committee by arguing the committee was set up to advise the city council on long-range issues, not on what he called “day to day business,” which is apparently how some view the 20-year Nestle lease.

Still, Aurora devotes significant time, energy, and money to water conservation efforts and, to many, the deal with Nestle seems to run counter to those efforts. Suddenly the city is leasing water rights to a user who provides no return flow but rather will simply bottle the water and cart it away.

Pro-business Aurora Councilman Ryan Frazier, GOP rising star running for Congress in the 7th District, opposed the deal from the start, arguing that leasing water to Nestle would put Aurora smack in the middle of a dispute between Chaffee County mountain residents and Nestle and that Aurora would get little in return. Yet the Council voted 7 to 4 to approve the lease. Frazier voted no as did Councilman Bob Fitzgerald, who opposed the deal for financial reasons, calling the $160,000 –a-year sum “trivial” and not worth the efforts.

What’s more, in Aurora, sustainability is the buzz. The city’s 2009 comprehensive plan is stamped by its concern for sustainability, which is a running theme, and which rates its own breakout plan. The water department limits lawn and garden watering to three days a week and offers rebates to residents who xeriscape.

The city’s website offers a calculation showing the Aurora carbon footprint. Once Nestle begins pumping and bottling Chaffee County water, possibly within a week or so, the city may have to adjust its advertised carbon footprint to account for the 6,250 miles a day Nestle trucks will be on the road or for the 40 million 16.9 ounce plastic bottles Nestle will fill with Chaffee water each month, or for the miles those bottles will then be shipped.

“I just wonder what the people of Aurora would think if they knew Aurora was selling its water to Nestle? If you’re touting sustainability as a city, it just doesn’t follow that you would sell water to somebody doing something that is very unsustainable,” says John Graham, president of Chaffee Citizens for Sustainability.

Baker said there is no contradiction between the City’s conservation efforts and leasing water to Nestle.

“For us, it comes down to business. This was a good business deal for us.” He said it’s none of Aurora Water’s business what Nestle does with the water it leases. “Their business model is for them to establish.”

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