The grandson of one of the Upper Arkansas River Valley’s first settlers stood his ground today against the new kid in town as Chaffee County takes center stage in a high-profile battle over water in the West.
The first 45 minutes of today’s public hearing on Nestle Waters North America water harvesting project in rural Chaffee County focused on Nestle’s plans to lease water from Aurora to replace the water it extracts from the springs at the mouth of Brown’s Canyon. Nestle plans to pipe the spring water to Johnson Village, four miles away. In Johnson Village, the water would be trucked to Denver for bottling as Nestle’s Arrowhead brand.
For the first time in four months of public hearings, Nestle was obviously on the warpath as first Nestle project manager Bruce Lauerman, then Nestle lawyer Holly Strablizky took aim at Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Manager Terry Scanga. Scanga, a direct descendent of one of the earliest Italian immigrants who helped settle Chaffee County, wouldn’t blink.
Scanga reiterated and clarified for the County Board of Commissioners his testimony from a week earlier, during which he said Nestle’s plans to lease water from Aurora could have a cumulative effect, especially in a drought year, that could be “very injurious to this basin.”
To illustrate his point, Scanga used the example of the most recent drought year, 2002. In that year, Scanga said flows on the Arkansas River dropped below 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). If the Nestle-Aurora lease were in place during the 2002 drought, and Aurora needed water for its municipal supplies because it depleted its own supply by leasing to Nestle, Scanga explained that under an intergovernmental agreement between Aurora and the UAWCD and Southeast Colorado Water Conservancy District, Aurora would have had the right to take water out of the Arkansas River Basin to quench its municipal thirst.
Under the same drought year scenario, Scanga said the local multi-agency Voluntary Flow Management Program could be endangered since the parties to that agreement (including water management agencies for Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo) are under no obligation to deliver water to the Arkansas during severe drought cycles. The Voluntary Flow program was created to enhance recreational opportunties on the Arkansas River, especially fishing and rafting.
Lauerman called Scanga’s testimony “fuzzy math.”
Buena Vista resident John Cogswell also cross-examined Scanga challenging the veteran water manager’s assertion that the Aurora-Nestle lease would have a significant adverse net affect. “(UAWCD’s) water argument doesn’t hold water,” Cogswell told the Salida Citizen.
Cogswell tried to get Scanga to agree that Nestle’s lease with Aurora would be no more impactful to water in the basin than irrigating 100 acres of agricultural land.
Scanga agreed that while the depletion is the same, the beneficial use of the water is not. A local rancher’s use of the water creates beneficial use within the county while Nestle’s bottled water project creates beneficial use outside the county, Scanga said.
During questioning from Commissioner Tim Glenn, Scanga said the Nestle-Aurora lease compounds the impact to the Upper basin in ways that would not occur if Nestle secured its leased water from another in-basin entity such as Pueblo Board of Water Works or the joint Salida-UAWCD proposal.
On that last point, longtime resident and local Realtor Karin Adams brought more math to light. The Aurora lease will cost Nestle approximately $200,000 for 200 acre feet of water for each of ten years, with an option to renew for another 10-year term. Aurora’s lease to Nestle could be interrupted in the event of a severe drought. Nestle rejected a joint offer from Salida and the UAWCD that would have cost $500,000 but would have provided an in-basin, uninterruptable supply of water that would have protected Nestle and other water rights users in the event of a drought. Scanga said if Nestle had agreed to the Salida-UAWCD proposal, the UAWCD would have re-invested the money to enhance the county’s water portfolio.
On another point, despite Scanga’s assertion to the contrary, Lauerman told the commissioners unequivocably that UAWCD has expressed interest in participating with Aurora in Aurora’s lease to Nestle.
Even if the Chaffee County commissioners approve Nestle’s Special Land Use Permit, Nestle still has to get water court approval for its augmentation plan. The stage has been set for a battle of the titans in water court. Based on Scanga’s predications, there will likely be at least two if not more objectors to the Nestle-Aurroa lease when it goes before the water court in a process that typically takes at least two years.