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Chaffee County Commissioners Approve Nestle Water Extraction Project… With 40 Stipulations Attached

Despite overwhelming citizen opposition; despite the county commissioners’s admission that Nestle’s application was lacking; despite the numerous flaws in Nestle’s “analysis” exposed by independent consultants; and despite the utter absence of real baseline water data (Nestle’s pumping tests lasted only three days), Chaffee County (CO) approved Nestle’s 65 million gallons a year water extraction project 3-0.

From the Salida Citizen online news site (which has provided excellent coverage of the entire process):

SALIDA, CO – The biggest land use case in Chaffee County history essentially came to a close today when the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a commercial water harvesting project in this rural river community in the mountains of south central Colorado.nestle

Members of both sides of the debate were reserved in their reaction to the decision granting Nestle Waters North America conditional approval to extract 65 million gallons of springwater annually from an aquifer at the mouth of the renowned Brown’s Canyon stretch of the Arkansas River. The water will be piped four miles to a truck loading station where it will then be transported two hours to Denver for bottling then sold to consumers as Nestle’s Arrowhead brand of bottled water.

The approval includes 40 conditions, totaling 11 pages and addressing what the commissioners considered some of the most controversial aspects of the proposal, namely water and economics.

Make no mistake – Nestle prevailed in this case not because their permit met the letter of the law or because of the economic benefits to the area (there simply aren’t many).

Instead, Nestle rolled quietly into town and recruited key political figures to their cause – long before citizens were even aware a project was planned.

It’s a recurring theme for the Swiss multinational – one that allows them to pull off projects even in the face of overwhelming citizen opposition.

In this case, the County Commissioners bent over backwards to accommodate the multinational – even after it was revealed (by the county’s own independently hired consultants) that Nestle’s economic analysis was wrong (or intentionally biased); its baseline environmental data was absent; and its record elsewhere was awful.

Instead of kicking Nestle’s water extraction project to the curb, the commissioners sat down and created 40 conditions (11 pages of them) Nestle would have to meet before approving Nestle’s permit.

Commissioner Frank Holman – a stanch Nestle project supporter from the start – lead the Nestle charge (this from the Salida Citizen’s story):

“Holman concluded that the county had imposed some “strict conditions” that addressed those areas of the application that were “nonconforming.”

Astonishingly, Holman later seemingly laid the burden of monitoring the project on Nestle and the county’s citizens – apparently not recognizing that’s his job:

Shortly before the vote, Holman looked directly at Nestle representatives and said that the county will “rely on the permittee to follow the conditions and we believe you will.” He said the county would also rely on the citizens to help monitor the project and thought that, overall, the project would be a benefit to the county.

It’s hard to imagine Chaffee County’s citizens feeling comforted by a statement that odd – especially after they’d made their opposition to the Nestle project heard in public meeting after meeting.

Early Warning

In this case, it wasn’t the job of the commissioners to bring Nestle’s application into compliance, yet the 11 pages of stipulations seems to have done exactly that.

This is how it happens; Nestle’s on-the-ground operative shows up early, identifying and courting those amenable to their project. After that’s done, Nestle’s projects enjoy considerable momentum, even after revelations of wrongdoing elsewhere appear.

As far as Nestle is concerned, the process worked, but that’s because they front-loaded it in their favor.

What’s also true is that Nestle didn’t expect to face this kind of citizen opposition, and – with several other water extraction projects looming in other parts of the state – couldn’t afford to lose this fight.

That’s why rolled out the big guns at a couple of meetings, bringing in high-dollar attorneys and water “experts” to bolster their case.

Ultimately, those high-dollar experts were needed after an economist and ecologist – independently hired by the county to review Nestle’s application – revealed significant problems with Nestle’s application.

Then there was the sudden scramble to “support the community” with a $500,000 endowment. Originally, Nestle’s “support” for the community wasn’t going to extend beyond free bottled water for high school events, but after citizen opposition arose, Nestle’s checkbook appeared quickly (and often).

The Errors (Always Favorable to Nestle) Accumulate

In one instance, Nestle suggested a gas tax benefit would accrue to the county, yet the independent economist pointed out there was no county gas tax. In another instance, Nestle overestimated the property tax benefit to the county by 61%.

An independent ecologist suggested that Nestle’s baseline data on the springs and accompanying wetlands was so lacking that they could never be held accountable for damage due to pumping; they could blithely assert their pumping wasn’t the cause, and just keep going.

This is precisely what happened in Mecosta County (MI) – and it took a citizen’s group lawsuit (to the tune of $1 million over six years) to force Nestle to behave.

Clearly, the county commissioners were afraid that would happen here; opponents of the project successfully forced the commissioners to add a stipulation to the permit which created a mitigation fund designed to compensate the county for expenses related to this project – including legal expenses stemming from lawsuits.

It’s an astonishing condition to attach to a project – and a sign that Nestle’s predatory history in rural towns is finally starting to catch up to it.

In fact, Nestle opponent Jim Ruggles focused on Nestle’s willingness to use legal means to protect its pumping operations:

“I don’t believe the commissioners are representing the best interests of Chaffee County,” said longtime resident and staunch Nestle opponent Jim Ruggles. “My main concern is that (Nestle) will dry out the aquifer and that the county will wind up in litigation sooner or later with Nestle. I believe the commissioners fairly ignored their own consultants and favored Nestle’s presentation of the facts.”

With more extraction deals planned in other communities, Nestle will no doubt fall all over themselves to spread a few dollars around Chaffee County (I’m sure it’s already happening), hoping to bolster their “good neighbor” image.

Still, even as Nestle’s project gets underway, the multinational has to be wondering what bus almost hit them.

They wandered into a sleepy rural town and expected to truck the are’as water back to Denver without so much as a peep of protest.

Instead, they found themselves squeaking by – even as the factual errors and flaws in their incomplete 1041 permit application were exposed.

Nestle’s willingness to put an operative on the ground in a town long before projects become public has paid off again, yet next time, they may not be so lucky:

Sam Schabacker of the national non-profit Food and Water Watch said Colorado’s battle with Nestle is being closely watched around the country and is considered pivotal to the nationwide fight against the privatization of water. “This is the first battleground in the Rocky Mountain West – the arid West – and CCFS has shown great leadership in this national struggle.” Schabacker said the intelligence and dedication CCFS has shown through the application review process puts the organization in a good position to recalibrate and take the fight to the next level, joining the ranks of citizens in Maine, California, Michigan and Flagstaff, AZ.

Read the draft conditions of approval here.
Read the cost mitigations fund report here.

2 comments

1 Bob Stone - Westcliffe CO { 08.24.09 at 7:39 am }

How irresponsible! Another example of our elected officials not acting in the best interest of the public! Just how does the Commisions Court plan on reviewing and interpreting the data that will be provided. Just the cost of storing the data alone will offset any expected financial gain from this project.
Water is a precious commodity. Let’s not just give it away. Our children will need it to exist.

2 TC { 08.24.09 at 8:04 am }

It’s an interesting – yet utterly familiar – case. What’s stunning is the fact that real economic benefits to the area are lacking, the negatives are plentiful (traffic, lifestyle, loss of a scarce resource, inhibition to future economic development), and yet people continue to claim that this might spur “economic development” in the area.

How could it possibly? There’s no jobs and no plant – just another strain on road infrastructure and another resource removed from the watershed?

As for monitoring, you make an excellent point.