NATHROP — Dozens of Chaffee County residents lined up Thursday to virtually blast a plan by Nestlé Waters North America to pump up to 65 million gallons of groundwater a year out of the Upper Arkansas River Valley for bottling in Denver.
“We don’t need Nestlé to bottle our water and sell it back to us in plastic bottles,” Jennifer Swacina, co-founder of Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water, a group formed in opposition to the Nestlé plan, said during the meeting held on Zoom.
The same scene played out in person in 2009, when the world’s largest food and beverage company applied for a permit to drill wells along the banks of the Arkansas River and build a pipeline to a station where 25 trucks a day would haul the spring water to a Denver plant for bottling under the Arrowhead brand.
The plan this time around isn’t much different as Nestlé Waters asks Chaffee County for a new 10-year permit. But as the commissioners heard in a three marathon meetings last week, 2020 is a lot different than 2009.
The county’s population is booming. Drought is ravaging the state. Plastic is polluting the planet. Nestlé Waters has been targeted by conservation groups across the country as it expands its water bottling operations. And Nestlé is about to sell its North American water brands.
“A lot has changed over the last 11 years,” Chaffee County Commissioner Rusty Granzella said as he questioned Nestlé officials during a nearly seven-hour meeting Tuesday night. The commissioners are expected to issue a final decision on the Nestlé permit application in the coming weeks.
Nestlé Waters reported $8.6 billion in sales in 2019, down slightly from 2018. The company’s North American water brands generated $3.6 billion in sales in 2019.
Earlier this year, as Nestlé worked to increase sustainability and profitability, the company said it would, by 2025, replenish all the water it sucks from watersheds and offset the carbon footprint of bottling and transporting water. The company also announced in June it was exploring a sale of its water-bottling operations in Canada and the U.S.
Local implications of international deal
A Chaffee County staff report this month on the Nestlé Waters permit renewal application said the company “has indicated it will be selling Nestlé Waters North America in 2021.”
When commissioners asked about the possibility of a sale, Larry Lawrence, Nestlé Waters North America’s natural resources manager, said the sale would not impact the permitting process or agreements the company was making to continue operations in Chaffee County.
John McGowan, a Chaffee County homeowner, on Thursday asked the commissioners to examine why Nestlé was selling and warned against a private equity owner.
“Nestlé is saying it has promised to operate in more sustainable ways,” McGowan said, “but Nestlé found it has a dilemma with its North American waters business, which cannot fulfill these new environmental promises and achieve its profitability goals.”
Other speakers on Thursday wondered what would happen if Nestlé left and sold the land, potentially to a developer who could add homes that might have a larger impact on the aquifer and community. A majority of the speakers at Thursday’s meeting urged the commissioners to deny the permit request.
The looming sale comes as Nestlé Waters faces increasing scrutiny over its water-mining operations in the U.S., where it has 25 bottling plants.
Nestlé is seeking a permit renewal in North Florida that would allow a fourfold increase in water it draws from Ginnie Springs. The company wants to extract 1.2 million gallons of water a day from the springs for its Seven Springs brand. The proposal has galvanized environmental opposition centered on the impact to the region’s Santa Fe River. In August, North Florida’s Suwannee River Water Management District delayed a decision on Nestlé’s permit renewal application.
Nestlé’s water operations in Michigan have been targeted with protests and lawsuits for years. Conservation groups have spent two years battling Michigan’s 2018 approval of Nestlé’s plan to increase the amount of groundwater it takes from several regions.
A Michigan appellate court in December ruled that the town of Osceola had the authority to deny Nestlé’s request for a pumping station that would increase its ability to draw and move water. Michigan lawmakers in 2019 proposed three billsthat would give local authorities more control over water extraction plans and prevent companies from selling locally mined water outside the Great Lakes Region, but the legislation never made it out of committee.
A bill to ban companies from mining water for bottling in Washington State was crafted earlier this year after a plan for a water bottling facility in a small town near Mount Rainier sparked local opposition. The legislation, like Michigan’s, also stalled in committee. Montana, Oregon and Maine also have proposed legislation to limit the bottling of groundwater.