No decision yet on Nestle bid to tap spring water

July 1, 2009

SALIDA - The world's largest food and beverage maker wants to tap natural springs along the Arkansas River for bottled water, and officials in Chaffee County continue to wrestle with the question of whether it helps or hurts the community.

It is Nestle Waters North America's first of several planned operations in Colorado, and an afternoon of deliberations by the commissioners Wednesday -- following a half-dozen marathon public meetings this spring -- did not result in a vote.

The commissioners told county staff to come up with possible conditions for approval of a 1041 land-use permit, but the board appeared divided on the controversial project.

"Nestle has made a decision not to create a lot of economic benefit in Chaffee county," said Commissioner Tim Glenn. "They are coming in. They are taking a valuable resource out of the system and they are giving very little back in the way of utilizing that resource. That's a concern of mine."

The company wants to withdraw 65 million gallons of spring water a year for its Arrowhead brand of bottled water from springs a few miles south of Johnson Village. The company operates 27 bottling plants and taps 50 springs around the country. The water would be trucked to a plant in Denver.

The debate among commissioners echoed what has been going on in Chaffee County for several months. Some residents see it as vital economic development in a rural area with little industry, while opponents view it as a water grab with no benefit to residents.

"Maybe there's another company that wants to come in and develop that spring and build a bottling plant in Johnson Village, rather than a trucking port," Glenn said. "This project has, in my mind, a negative economic impact in Chaffee County."

The other two commissioners, though, said those aren't factors the county should consider in its permit.

"This particular spring water has been sitting there doing basically nothing for a long time, not adding any value to the community," said Commissioner Frank Holman.

"For us to sit here and say, ‘We're going to deny this application because we think it would be better used for something else,' is really not in our domain and our choice," said Commissioner Dennis Giese.

Lacking agreement on the philosophical debate, officials chose to focus on specific points, and asked the county staff to draw up a list of conditions for a permit. The conditions will address concerns about the impact of the wells on the water supply in dry years and wetlands in the area; truck traffic on U.S. Highway 285; daily pumping limits; and the timetable for Nestle to remove a dilapidated fish hatchery on the site.

Commissioners set another meeting on the permit for Aug. 5.

Nestle is eyeing several other locations in Colorado to tap springs. Water must be of a certain quality, and not be fed by surface water, for companies to call it spring water. The company has an agreement with Aurora for that city to release 200 acre-feet a year from a reservoir to compensate for the water Nestle would remove from the Arkansas basin.

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