The Crestone Eagle • January, 2021

Chaffee County extends Nestle Waters 1041 permit Calls for study of economic impact

by Lisa Cyriacks

The world’s largest food and beverage company applied for a new 10-year permit to pump 200 gallons of groundwater a minute from Ruby Springs Aquifer (Nathrop, Chaffee County) and truck it to Denver for bottling. Nestlé’s plan has drawn sharp criticism from Chaffee County locals.

On December 8, Chaffee County Commissioners voted unanimously to extend the Nestlé Waters North America 1041 permit to Aug. 4, 2021 while the County awaits release and review of the economic impact report. At the same meeting, the County contracted with Harvey Economics for the economic impact report.

Nestlé wanted to simply renew the earlier agreement for another 10 years. But just as in 2009, many community members protested during several public meetings in October and November featuring hours of public input—virtually all expressing opposition to the plan. 

Citing myriad concerns, residents objected vigorously.  Concerns are mainly focused on environmental issues. Locals worry about impacts to the watershed and to nearby wetlands. They say that climate change, predicted to further dry Colorado and the Southwest, warrants a precautionary approach to all things water-related. 

In response, earlier in 2020, Nestlé announced a plan to 

replenish all the water siphoned from watersheds and offset the carbon impact of bottling and transporting water. That “zero environmental impact” sustainability plan was followed by news that the international conglomerate was exploring the sale of its bottling operations in the U.S. and Canada. Chaffee County commissioners, troubled by the possibility of a change in ownership, drafted new permit rules that, if approved, would require local approval of a new owner to operate under the Nestlé permit. 

The first permit allowed the company to drill wells, build a pipeline and truck water to Denver for bottling under the Arrowhead brand. The company acquires water from the Upper Arkansas River Water Conservancy District every year to augment flows in the river and replace its removal of groundwater. 

Opposition groups are critical of what they describe is a lack of real oversight of the operation by the County.

Opponents also point to fights other communities have had with Nestlé, and to the things that have changed in the past 10 years: 1) the county’s population is booming, 2) drought is ravaging the state, and 3) plastic is increasingly polluting the planet. Across the country, Nestlé Waters has been targeted by conservation groups as it continues to expand its water-bottling operations. Finally, Nestlé is about to sell its North American water brands.

Others concerns have been expressed about increased truck traffic on the state highway, whether the company has kept the terms of the original 1041 agreement, and what’s viewed by some activists as generating obscene profits from a locally vital resource.

Mounting a defense, Nestlé says that it is an environmentally sensitive operation. It met the terms of the earlier 1041 permit, and has voluntarily been a good neighbor. It has contributed to many community organizations and causes, including a $500,000 endowment to Salida and Buena Vista schools, besides paying hefty fees for water augmentation into the river for what it uses from the spring aquifer.

The human right to water and the politics of water privatization

When Nestlé first approached Chaffee County officials in 2009 seeking a permit to pump groundwater and truck it to Denver for bottling, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) prepared a report about the potential impacts of the project.

CNHP is a science program at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources. The program was created in 1979 “to identify and describe areas of statewide and global conservation significance and to educate decision makers regarding the impacts of various land-use options.”

As the Chaffee County Commissioners prepare to consider extending Nestlé Waters North America’s 1041 permit, Delia Malone, an ecologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, takes issue with Nestlé’s dismissal of “a warming climate and its impact on water resources.”

Projections for changes from climate change were not included in the assessment by CNHP performed 10 years ago. Data shows that average temperatures in Colorado have already increased by 2.5°F in the past 50 years; 2°F in the past 30 years, with a mid-range projection of another 2°F expected by 2050.

Additionally, Malone said, as temperatures increase, the air can hold more moisture, so the combined effect of increasing temperatures on soil drought and precipitation creates a feedback loop that intensifies the impacts of climate change to water resources.

Warming temperatures also cause more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow, which means quicker runoff, which means less water seeping into aquifers, Malone said. “To not consider climate change is foolhardy. We have hard data.”

Malone referenced a CNHP report published in December 2015, “Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Colorado Bureau of Land Management.” The CNHP report identifies “increasing frequency and severity of drought” as “the primary factor that is likely to increase vulnerability of freshwater ecosystems.”

The report concludes that the vulnerability of freshwater ecosystems in Colorado ranges from moderate to very high “with reasonable certainty that these habitats will be impacted by climate change.”

“Climate is a major driver of aquatic ecosystems,” Malone concluded her comments. “In my professional judgment, any consideration of alteration to aquatic systems in the arid West requires a serious consideration of climate change and the impacts that are clearly predicted to occur with regard to water resources.”

Commodification of water in the form of bottled water and a growing interest in water as a whole—especially water’s growing scarcity in the western United States, raises the question of the ethics of a private water company using water to make money. 

Many say there is a greater story—about a growing world population of more than 6.5 billion faced with a limited supply of fresh water. Experts not directly involved in the Chaffee County situation nevertheless point to it as evidence of rising sensitivity to water issues everywhere. 

Unfortunately, in spite of official recognition by the United Nations in 2010, the human right to water remains a contested notion.