This Tuesday, the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners will begin deliberations on the most controversial land use case in at least the past decade. Nestle Waters North America hopes to extract 65 million gallons of spring water per year from an aquifer in Nathrop, pipe it four miles to a truck loading facility in Johnson Village for a two-hour ride to Denver where the water will be bottled and sold under Nestle’s Arrowhead water brand.
Since the close of public testimony on May 21, the commissioners have been wading through a sea of technical documents, hundreds of hours of, at times, acrimonious public testimony and their own land use regulations as they try to determine whether to give the thumbs up or down to Nestle.
The commissioners’ challenging task is made more daunting since the proposal has been modified so many times with written and oral conditions suggested by both Nestle and county staff and consultants that the proposal currently before the commissioners bears little resemblance to the one originally submitted Nov. 3.
We think there are at least three key issues upon which the commissioners can and should vote no on Nestle.
• Chaffee County doesn’t need bottled water. The first test of a 1041 application is the applicant’s ability to demonstrate need. Chaffee County doesn’t need bottled water . . . yet. The only people who need Chaffee County spring water are Nestle shareholders. Extracting water here will save Nestle money by dramatically reducing transportation expenses. Instead of trucking water from California, it’s just two hours – in good weather and light traffic – between the truck loading station in Johnson Village and the Denver bottling plant. The irony is that Chaffee County could develop a thirst for bottled water in the future if Nestle and it’s augmentation arrangement with the City of Aurora create shortages, especially during times of severe drought, as Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Manager Terry Scanga warns.
• The proposal does not take into account development pressures on the county. The county’s 1041 regulations state that one of the considerations for 1041 designation is “the intensity of current and foreseeable development pressure in the county.” While development pressure has gotten little attention during the Nestle application review process here, the issue is a growing concern statewide and regionally. The state demographer’s office predicts that by 2035, the population here will approach 30,000 (29,515) or 73.7 percent more than today according to US Census Bureau estimates the county’s 2008 population at 16,985. In fact, a 2008 report prepared for the Western Governor’s Association finds “population growth is continuing at an unprecedented rate throughout the West” with ramifications for cities, rural communities and agricultural areas. For this reason and others, one of the many recommendations in the report, entitled “Water Needs and Strategies for a Sustainable Future: Next Steps,” is that water planning and land use planning be better integrated. In 2000, the county’s own comprehensive plan recommended the county work with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District to create a valley-wide water supply policy but at this time, no such policy exists.
• Project impacts as they relate to climate change impacts on water have not been adequately addressed. The commissioners may reject Nestle’s proposal “if there is not sufficient information concerning any material feature of the proposed project.”
A growing body of scientific evidence has state and federal elected officials racing to find ways to ensure water quantity and quality is sufficient to sustain the future in the arid American West. A 2008 study for the Colorado Water Conservation Board notes increasing temperatures are affecting the state’s water resources. The report points out changes in long-term precipitation and soil moisture can affect groundwater recharge rates; “coupled with demand issues this may mean greater pressures on groundwater resources.”
Just yesterday, at the annual conference of western governors, Colorado’s Bill Ritter said the region needs to do more to protect the water that’s already available. According to an Associated Press story from the conference, Peter Gleick, president of environmental think tank Pacific Institute, said water is connected to the major controversies of the West including urbanization, natural resources and energy development. Gleick also said that climate change – which will alter precipitation and the time of mountain snowmelt – needs to be incorporated into all water management decisions.
Ecologist Delia Malone of Colorado Natural Heritage Program came under fire for recommending exactly such consideration in her review for the county of potential natural resources impacts from the Nestle project. Nestle vehemently objected to numerous findings in Malone’s first draft report in which she devoted a section to climate change including this statement: “Climate trends will alter stream flows and aquifer recharge rendering (Nestle) predictions about pumping sustainability unsupported and inconclusive.”
Nestle consultants argued that “given the current state of knowledge, it seems tenuous and illogical to base project approvals on climatalogical conditions (with considerable uncertainty) to occur many years in the future.”
But Malone, whose draft report had referenced scientific opinions included reference to climate change predictions for Colorado from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fired back saying, “given the current state of knowledge regarding the impact of climate change on water resources in the West, I strongly recommend erring on the side of caution by conserving the water resources that are predicted to be impacted by our changing climate.”
Given the volume of concern over reports pointing to the certainty that climate change will impact to water resources here and throughout the West, we agree with Malone that the county should err on the side of caution.
Nestle has not conclusively demonstrated that benefits accruing to the county from its operations will “outweigh the losses of any natural, agricultural and recreational resources with the county or losses of opportunities to develop such resources,” a basic tenet of the 1041 regulations. Therefore, we urge the commissioners to live up to their campaign promises and other public pronouncements about keeping water in the valley and that green, as in sustainability, is the future for the county, and say no to Nestle.