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Nestlé Waters North America can fill up to 25 tanker trucks a day at its pumping station in Johnson Village. The company pipes water from groundwater wells along the Arkansas River, trucks it to Denver and bottles it under the Arrowhead brand. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Chaffee County’s commissioners want more analysis of a plan by Nestlé Waters North America to pump as much as 65 million gallons of water a year from the Upper Arkansas River Valley for bottling in Denver. 

After several meetings in the last two months featuring hours of public input — virtually all of it opposing the plan — and executive session discussions with attorneys, the county’s three-member board of commissioners on Tuesday announced a plan to hire an economic analysis firm to study the economic impacts of the water-pumping proposal. 

“I want to make the best decision I can with just three people here trying,” Commissioner Greg Felt said on Nov. 10 as he floated the idea of hiring an economist to study Nestlé’s request for a 10-year permit to pump and bottle water from a network of wells on the Arkansas River. 

Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, began drawing water from the valley in 2009 as part of a 10-year permit. That 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. 

Last year the company asked for a permit renewal and, after pandemic delays, the county began studying the request in October. Chaffee County’s commissioners have heard from dozens of residents that a lot has changed in the decade since Nestlé first arrived.

“I’m not sure why this is a negotiation to keep this contract as opposed to end this contract and make a path for Nestlé leading out of our community,” said Angie Thompson during public comment on Nov. 10, when residents expressed concerns over climate change, Colorado’s prolonged drought, population growth and Chaffee County’s evolving economy that is growing less reliant on natural resource extraction. 

Nestlé earlier this year announced a plan to replenish all the water it sucks 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 bottling operations in the U.S. and Canada. The possibility of a sale troubled Chaffee County commissioners. The board drafted new permit rules that, if approved, would require local approval of a new owner to operate under the Nestlé permit. 

Nestlé Waters North America was amenable to the new requirement. And the company earlier this month, in response to local input, crafted new conditions for the permit that would direct more Nestlé money into the local community. 

“Our goal is to address the concerns we heard with the following conditions,” Larry Lawrence, natural resources manager with Nestlés Waters North America, said during the Nov. 10 hearing. 

The new conditions divide the company’s contributions to the county into two tiers based on how much water is extracted for bottling. 

When the company pumps less than 125 acre-feet, or roughly 41 million gallons a year, the school districts in Buena Vista and Salida would get $15,000 a year for the length of the 10-year contract and up to $10,000 more a year for each school district depending on matching funds. (The company funded a $500,000 endowment for the county’s schools in 2009.)

The Ruby Mountain Springs is below the wells where Nestlé pumps water for bottling in Denver. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Also in that 125 acre-feet tier, the company would direct $5,000 to $10,000 a year to support local training of truck drivers so the company could better meet its goal of hiring local drivers to pilot tankers between its pumping station in Johnson Village and Denver. Also Nestlé said it would contribute up to $20,000 a year to local charities, depending on matching support. 

If Nestlé pumps more than 125 acre-feet, the contributions to local schools, driving training scholarships and local charities would increase. 

Last year, Nestlé Waters North America reported it drew 89 acre-feet of groundwater from its wells below Ruby Mountain.

The new plan has Nestlé committed to contribute $400,000, up to $800,000 over the 10-year permit for the first tier and $675,000 to more than $1.3 million, depending on matching support, if the company pumps more than 125 acre-feet, said Caitlin Quander, Nestlé’s attorney with  Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

One of the standards for a 1041 permit issued by Chaffee County requires that projects do not have “a significantly adverse net effort on any segment of the local economy.” The 1041 permit process gives local authorities more voice in so-called “activities of state interest” that include new communities, roads, infrastructure and industrial projects.) A 2009 economic study as part of Nestlé Waters North America’s 2009 permit found the plan did not have a negative impact. But the county commissioners want to revisit that analysis. 

The meetings in October and November were held virtually, with only a few people speaking live before the commissioners and most speaking through the Zoom platform. The virtual process included lengthy discussions in the Zoom chat room, where residents floated all kinds of ideas. One idea that galvanized residents entailed the company taking over a local water operation at the Nestlé facilities. Another had the company supporting recycling efforts in the county. 

Felt, the county commissioner, said last week that the conversation was yielding good ideas and he wanted time to more closely study the resident suggestions.  

Commissioner Keith Baker said this week that many residents were expressing concerns about the increasing cost of recycling in the county. 

“That doesn’t fall at Nestlé’s feet,” Baker said, “but some members of the public are asking me to consider or asking me to present a way to get Nestlé to underwrite the county’s recycling program.”

Lawrence on Tuesday said the company would be fine with further study, but wanted more details on the permit to continue water pumping operations, which expires Dec. 31 following a one-year extension related to pandemic delays. Lawrence said Nestlé “may or may not” present its own economic study as well. (The company has developed a fishing easement on its property allowing access that likely contributes to the area’s economy.)

Nestlé Waters North America has provided a fishing easement near its property on the Arkansas River. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The commissioners will meet again on Dec. 8 to discuss a contract with an economic advisory group — the cost of which will be covered by Nestlé Waters North America — as well as the possible extension of the company’s permit during the analysis. 

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins