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for people who care about the West

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 (hcn.org). She is a naturalist and the author of several books.