Must our water always flow uphill toward money?


I've given up drinking bottled water. It's so wasteful: Up to three quarts of water are used for each quart bottled. Also, it consumes 67 million barrels of oil annually on its journey from source to consumer, and sends 2 million tons of plastic bottles to landfills.

It's especially wasteful in arid country like the high-desert valley where I live in south-central Colorado. But that hasn't stopped Nestle, one of the world's largest producers of bottled water, from attempting to siphon off our scarce local groundwater.

The company plans to pump 200 acre-feet of water annually, enough to supply the yearly household needs of 400 to 600 families, from springs that pour into the Arkansas River. Nestle says it will pipe the water five miles to the nearest highway, load it into tanker trucks, and haul it uphill over the mountains to its bottling plant 130 miles away in Denver.

Like many Western rivers, the Arkansas is already over-appropriated: Every drop it carries, including some imported from river basins on Colorado's wetter Western Slope, is "owned" by a water user, most of them far away on the populous Front Range. The water Nestle is purchasing, however, is "native" to our valley and its rare springs.

In coming to Chaffee County, population 17,000, Nestle is following the pattern it has established in small rural communities from Maine to California: The company exploits our hunger for jobs, tax revenue and development.

In tiny McCloud in Northern California, for example, Nestle negotiated a contract with the local water district to extract and bottle 500 million gallons of spring water for a pittance, plus the right to use unlimited amounts of groundwater in operating its planned bottling plant, all without conducting a study of the environmental impacts. Local people opposed to the plan commissioned an independent report which concluded that the company's pumping plans would seriously endanger Squaw Valley Creek, crucial to the area's tourist economy, and would provide mainly low-wage and seasonal jobs. In 2007, the California Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling striking down the contract. But Nestle, which sold nearly $10 billion of bottled water that year, hasn't gone away.

Here in Chaffee County, the springs Nestle intends to pump flow into the most heavily used stretch of whitewater in the country. Nearly 230,000 people boated the Upper Arkansas in 2008, bringing an estimated $24 million to the local economy.

No one is suggesting Nestle's pumping would dry up the Arkansas River, but Chaffee County's commissioners must decide whether the company's plans promote the "general welfare" of our county's citizens and are consistent with protecting the county's environment, economy and communities. These criteria leave a lot of room for interpretation.

The company is proposing to pump water from a high-quality aquifer whose boundaries and recharge rates are unknown, although Nestle tells us it collects snowmelt and rainfall draining the drier, rain-shadow side of the valley.

Nestle points to data showing the historic average flows of the two springs are significantly higher than the amount the company plans to pump, and to its own pumping tests, which show no diminution in flow. But historic data may no longer be relevant: Climate models show our part of the world growing radically warmer and drier. Salida tallied just over 5 inches of precipitation last year, barely 50 percent of the historic average; this year, we've gotten a dismal 30 percent.

Moreover, Nestle's pumping tests spanned weeks, not years, after a winter with a record-high snowpack.  This offers no assurances about what might happen over longer time spans, or during drought conditions.

True, the company must "replace" the 200 acre-feet a year it plans to export from the valley, but that water won't come from the same source, and as any trout knows, all water is not created equal. Water quality, nutrients and chemical "signature" vary widely.

As for jobs, after the pipeline and loading station are constructed, the company will have no employees in Chaffee County. It will pay an estimated $80,000 in property taxes, some of which is already being paid by current landowners.

Nestle talks a good line, employing feel-good words like habitat restoration, community involvement and money. But the company has not committed to anything, and it's clear from its figures that the vast majority of dollars will flow out of the county along with our groundwater.

Here in the West, we often say that water flows uphill toward money. I hope my county proves the exception to that rule. Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a naturalist and the author of several books.

Anonymous says:
Apr 03, 2009 06:59 AM
This plant has been mentioned several times lately, both here and in the Front Range media. Maybe drinkers of bottled water (especially those who live far away from the water's source) don't understand the impact of their habit. Maybe the water companies have some slick marketing departments. Either way, bottled water is an unsustainable habit. It has its uses, such as in care packages to disaster areas where the water supply is unsafe, but generally it's a waste of a resource. Just say no to Nestle.
Anonymous says:
Jun 21, 2009 07:59 PM
actually, there's this inventor in NH(?) named Kramer(?) who has invented a cool device that can be carried- about the size of a small knapsack,perhaps- that can purify water. That can be use in remote disaster situations. Don't need the bottled water! Also, another company that makes a vehicle that can get into areas that can take polluted water, run it thru it's machine, and provide clean water. No one seems interested in funding these ....why?
Anonymous says:
Apr 07, 2009 08:52 AM
For more information on Nestle see the DVD Flow. That is an eye opener. I believe it is time to tax bottled water, for all the reasons you mention in the article and more.
Thank you.
Anonymous says:
Apr 08, 2009 07:23 PM
what? what can we do to stop this???? where do we write? what do we do????
Anonymous says:
Apr 13, 2009 11:38 AM
You can write to Chaffee County Commissioners
Frank Holman
Dennis Giese
Tim Glenn

or check out the following websites:
Anonymous says:
Apr 09, 2009 01:13 AM
Don't forget about how all the large multi-nationals have already exploited foreign countries where environmental and land use laws are even more lax/non-existent. Coca-Cola dropped the water table in one village in India by 40 feet within 4 years. Then they dumped their toxic by-products from the plastic bottle manufacturing into a local river. See This is just one site documenting one company's abuses--it is prevalent world-wide.

What can we do? Stop buying bottled water. Buy yourself a reusable water bottle and drink out of your tap. Lean on your local politicians to enact land use laws that won't allow these multi-national conglomerates to steal our water and then turn around and sell it right back to us for pure profit. At the very least, they should be taxed. They are robbing us of our public resources.
Anonymous says:
Apr 11, 2009 07:40 AM
Susan Tweit has written the definitive Op-Ed piece on the issues swirling around the proposed Nestle Waters in Chaffee County. This proposal will probably be decided on the fine points of personal property and water law. Environmental impacts and law will probably take a back seat, if they're on the bus at all. The least, the VERY LEAST, we can do id to be very, very tough customers and get the best deal we can from Nestle or any other water miner who comes to our county, and force them to be the good neighbors they profess to be in all the communities who wish they'd never come.
Anonymous says:
Apr 15, 2009 11:11 AM
boringgg. coudn't even get through the first paragraph without taking a yawnnnnn! oh gosh. who cares about water!!!!!!!! water is water! blah blah blah.
Anonymous says:
Jun 21, 2009 08:07 PM
try going 8 days without any (including in any other thing you might try to drink!)
perhaps, you need to go see some polluted water sources, that have been done by industry....maybe then, you wouldn't take this most precious element for granted.
Anonymous says:
Jun 22, 2009 10:33 PM
 leekie lee's comment underscores the kind of problems that exist in America today. Why even comment leekie? Why even read? You should really just stick to the x-box and stay away from the voting booth and the keyboard.
Anonymous says:
Jun 30, 2009 08:39 PM
Nestle is good at what it does and one of the things it does is acquire water rights! Some might remember a recent case in Michigan, "Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation v. Nestlé Waters North America" In that case The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that use of water for purposes of bottling and commercial selling serves a beneficial purpose, in part because the endeavor employed 140 people and created tax revenues, but also because “the provision of water to the general public is . . . an economically and socially beneficial use of the water" Hard to argue with the microeconomics, but there is another less than rosy microeconomic picture, i.e. the depletion of a region's water resources for thirsty corporate coffers and distant urbanites. Furthermore, I can't see how the practice doesn't also drive up the price of water--driving up the price of an already scarce and uniquely necessary resource = bad. The practice is simply not sustainable. In South Central Colorado the law is that of prior appropriation and not reasonable use. Nestle can buy and sell the rights it wants from prior appropriators who have otherwise put the water to beneficial use. It is true, money flows uphill, downhill, or through the hill to the $$.