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Pressure builds over bottled water

Towns around the U.S. fight firms that want to soak up a local resource.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2009

Newly labeled bottles of Poland Spring water are prepared for packaging at a Kingfield, Maine, plant.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen /The Christian Science Monitor

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SALIDA, Colo.

In many ways Salida, Colo., typifies the 21st-century Rocky Mountain town. Originally founded along a railroad line in the late 1800s, it’s now geared primarily toward tourism.

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Among the red brick buildings of the historic center where ranchers, miners, and railroad workers once held sway, tourists now move between coffee shops, galleries, and outfitters. During warmer months, kayakers “surf” a man-made wave in the fast-flowing Arkansas River, which marks the edge of the downtown area.

For the better part of this year, Salida – population 5,400 – has also been the setting for a 21st century kind of battle – over water.

Here and there in windows and entryways are signs reading “Stop Nestlé” or “Nest-Leave.” They refer to a proposed project by Nestlé Waters North America, which hopes to pump water from a spring a half-hour north of here and sell it under its Arrowhead label.

Citing myriad concerns, a group of residents has objected vigorously. They worry about impacts to the watershed and to nearby wetlands. They say that climate change, predicted to further dry Colorado and the Southwest, warrants a precautionary approach to all things water-related. And, pointing to fights other communities have had with the company, they say they simply don’t want Nestlé as a neighbor.

Nestlé counters that these concerns are overblown. The company says: The amount of water it plans to withdraw is negligible; the project will bring many benefits – economic and otherwise – to the community; and the company, the largest water bottler in North America, is an upstanding corporate citizen.

In mid-August, after months of public hearings and expert testimony, the county finally gave approval to the project – but attached 44 conditions.

“We still feel that the decision to grant them the permit is not a wise decision,” says John Graham, president of the Chaffee Citizens for Sustainability (CCFS), which has led the opposition against the project. The group is weighing what to do next.

Nestlé is satisfied with the outcome, says Bruce Lauerman, a natural resources manager for the company. “We can, and will, comply with all the conditions.”

So what’s the big deal?

The springs in question are to the middle and east of the Upper Arkansas Valley. Boulders lie strewn about, carried to their current positions more than  10,000 years ago when ice dams blocking the Arkansas River breached, inundating the valley. Water from the spring now collects in clear pools. Trout flit beneath the silvery surface. Rafters occasionally float past on the turbid river, which marks the southern boundary of the property on which the springs are located.

Water seems to abound. Nestlé plans to pump 200 acre-feet per year, or enough water to flood 200 acres with one foot of water. That’s 1 to 2 percent of the aquifer recharge coming from a 50,000-acre watershed to the east, says Mr. Lauerman. “This is a safe, sustainable way to withdraw water. End of story.”