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Know the West

Nestle water plan approved

 

    Last week, Nestle received approval to tap mountain spring water and haul it to Denver for bottling and distribution under its Arrowhead label.
 
    The approval came from a unanimous board of Chaffee County Commissioners, following months of deliberations and lengthy hearings. Chaffee County, with about 15,000 residents, sits along the Arkansas River in central Colorado.
 
    The county's two largest settlements are Salida, the county seat, and Buena Vista, about 25 miles north. The springs at issue are between the two towns on the east side of the Arkansas River, and were once used to feed a private fish hatchery.
 
    Nestle plans to take about 125 gallons a minute from one or two wells that will tap the same aquifer that supplies the springs. The water will be piped four miles to a loading terminal at the Johnson Village truck stop (the intersection of U.S. 24 and U.S. 285 at the foot of Trout Creek Pass), then loaded into tankers (about 25 per day) and trucked 120 miles to Denver.
 
    Chaffee County Commissioners attached a host of conditions -- 44 in 11 pages -- to the permit for a land-use change. The stipulations range from monitoring wells to the hiring of locals for construction and truck-driving. Nestle will replace the water (200 acre-feet a year) it is taking from the Arkansas River with Western Slope water it has leased from the city of Aurora, a Denver suburb with more water rights than it needs right now, on account of the housing slump.
 
    Nestle's proposal inspired plenty of local controversy, although that may not be the right word for it, since almost everybody who addressed the topic was against it.
 
    There were objections to bottled water in general, and to Nestle as a multi-national preying on a rural area. And, of course, to exporting water, although that's what rural areas do, except they often put the water in potato skins or yearling steers first.
 
    Then there were alarming stories about Nestle operations in California and Michigan, with the fear that once the camel got his nose under our tent, he'd drink it dry.
 
    Now, Colorado's arcane and complicated water laws come in for a lot of criticism. But the water laws are set up to protect existing water rights from being injured by developments like Nestle's, and so I have trouble imagining some dark scenario where the Arkansas River bed is dry one afternoon because Nestle is hauling it all to its bottling plant.
 
    Thus it appears to me that the Chaffee County Commissioners did the best within their powers; they made the best deal they could with Nestle and avoided what could be some very costly litigation.
 
    I did read some commentary about how Chaffee County could become famous as the place that "Just said no" to Nestle, but I didn't see any offers to help finance the lawsuits that would inevitably emerge. And I sure don't want my local taxes increased for a court battle with Nestle.
 
    I've joked before that rural areas have two major exports -- water and smart kids, and they don't get a nickel for either. At least this time around, the county got something, even if it may turn out not to be enough.
 
    Besides, "the market" may resolve the bottled-water issue. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nestle's profits dropped in the first half of 2009 as compared to a year earlier, primarily on account of declining sales of bottled water because recession-era customers are going back to tap water, and the trend is expected to continue.