Going by the law


With production supposed to start soon, I've encountered even more criticism of the Nestle bottled-water operation in Colorado's Chaffee County, where I live.

In brief, Nestle will take 200 acre-feet a year of water from springs near Nathrop, between Buena Vista and Salida, and transport it in tanker trucks to the Denver area. There it will be bottled and sold under the Arrowhead brand.

To make up for the water taken to the bottling plant, water that would have otherwise flowed down the Arkansas River to other users with senior water rights, Nestle made a deal with the City of Aurora, a suburb just east of Denver. With the economic downturn, Aurora doesn't need all the water it has rights to. So Aurora will lease "augmentation water" to Nestle. Thus the river flow is preserved, and downstream water users will not be harmed.

Now, I've never been a fan of this scheme. But I don't think it's fair to criticize our county commissioners for granting the relevant permits to Nestle. They have to follow the law, not the widespread disgust with the bottled-water industry.

Colorado law allows water to be diverted for "beneficial use." In general, that means "some economic purpose" like raising corn or milling ore. Bottled water may be a disgusting waste of resources, but it fulfills an economic purpose, or Nestle wouldn't be doing it.

Further, the state constitution says "The right to divert ... any natural stream to beneficial uses shall never be denied."

Given that, Nestle had the legal basis for long and expensive litigation if Chaffee County had denied the permits. As a resident of Chaffee County, I don't want to pay higher taxes, or suffer cuts in governmental services, to defend a lawsuit that would in all likelihood come out against the county. I think our commissioners (two of them Republicans whom I didn't vote for) got the best deal they could, and the third commissioner, a Democrat, also voted for the Nestle deal.

Nestle does bear watching, given its activities in California and Michigan, where it is accused of taking more water than it was supposed to. But Colorado water law, while complex and arcane, does offer better protection to other water users; what happened elsewhere may not be all that relevant here.

Also I find it curious that Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, gets quoted as a critic of the Aurora deal. His agency wanted to sell the augmentation water to Nestle and collect the money that now goes to Aurora. This is like asking the Chevy dealer if he has a problem with the town buying police cars from the Ford dealer.

Finally, here's a suggestion for those who think the Chaffee County Commissioners should have turned Nestle down. Next time around, set up a Rural County Defense Fund, and contribute generously to it. If you think defending such a lawsuit is worth my money, certainly it ought to be worth some of yours.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer based in Salida, Colo.

Bottled water photograph from Flickr user crazyminny5, reproduced here under a Creative Commons license.