Quillen’s Corner

At first glance, it might be hard to say which is the bigger controversy hereabouts: Christo’s plan to drape the Arkansas River, or Nestlé’s plan to haul water to a plant in Denver to be bottled and sold as Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water.

But at second glance, it’s an easy call. Christo is more controversial, because there are quite a few people on both sides, for and against it. As for Nestle, the fingers of one hand would likely suffice to count its local supporters, while there are multitudes in opposition.

Nestle is a multi-national food products company based in Switzerland. The company may be best known for its chocolate, but it makes a lot of other ingestible products, among them many brands of bottled water, from Arrowhead to Zephyrhills, all coming from “the healthy hydration company.”

The Arrowhead brand on Colorado shelves is trucked in from California. That’s expensive, so Nestlé wants to build a bottling plant in Denver, and supply it with spring water from Chaffee County. The springs are near Nathrop, and once served a private fish hatchery, right next to the Arkansas River, which carries the spring water downstream.

Nestlé proposes to drill some wells to tap the aquifer that supplies the springs, then pump the water into an underground pipeline that will terminate at Johnson Village, where tanker trucks will be loaded for the trip to the Denver bottling plant.

According to Nestlé, the springs flow at more than 1,000 gallons per minute, and Nestlé proposes to take about 125 gallons per minute, which works out to 0.4 cubic feet per second, or 200 acre-feet a year. To protect downstream users with senior water rights and thus maintain the river’s flow, Nestlé will buy augmentation water, most likely Twin Lakes shares from the city of Aurora.

While Nestlé will pay about $83,000 a year in property taxes to the county and the Buena Vista school district and the like, there may be only one local job, a watchman. It’s a typical colonial arrangement — the colony provides the raw materials, and the colonizer does all the value-added stuff.

Nestlé’s local opponents cite a variety of reasons:

— Bottled water is unnecessary. Besides, making plastic bottles consumes petroleum, and the empty bottles create more waste for landfills.

— The tanker trucks will make about two dozen round trips to Denver every day, adding to traffic on U.S. 285. This area depends on auto-based tourism, and tourists aren’t going to be happy about driving behind some tanker truck crawling up a hill.

— Nestlé has been untrustworthy in other locales and stands accused of depleting aquifers.

— A rural area, especially one in a high desert, should not be exporting water.

But the fact is that exporting water is what rural economies do, although we seldom phrase it that way. I have to give credit to my friend Randy Russell, who’s worked all over Colorado and the West as a planner, for enlightening me about this.

We were both at some conference years ago where the discussion turned to the then-current scheme to tap the deep aquifer in the San Luis Valley and export water. Naturally, people said that was a bad thing. Randy spoke up: “But the San Luis Valley already exports a lot of water. You just put it in potato skins first.”

The typical farm-fresh potato is 80 percent water, so a ton of potatoes has 1,600 pounds of water — about 200 gallons. In 2002, Rio Grande County alone produced 898 million pounds of potatoes, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Since very few of those potatoes are consumed locally, that works out to about 266 acre-feet of water hauled away on trains and trucks every year.

And that’s just the water exported inside potato skins from one county. There are other water losses along the way. Irrigate a field, and some water seeps down through the soil to join the shallow aquifer. That water remains available, so it’s not consumed.

Some becomes part of the plant, and if the plant is exported, then that water, so far as the local basin is concerned, has been exported.

And some water evaporates from the leaves during the growing season, a process called evapotranspiration. Measuring that is tricky, since the rate varies according to temperature and wind. Further, we can’t really tell if the water vapor that rises from a hay field near Nathrop joins a cloud that drops rain on St. Elmo that afternoon to flow down Chalk Creek to the ditch that irrigates the hay field, thus keeping the water in the basin, or if that vapor wafts off to Kansas and is lost to us.

In other words, agriculture, even for local consumption, always involves some “water export.”

In Chaffee County, the two major agricultural products are hay and cattle. Kurt Jones, the county extension agent, told me that most hay produced here stays here, so it wouldn’t be a significant water export factor. And besides, cut and baled hay is only 8 percent water.

Cattle are a different matter; he estimated that 95 percent of the cattle raised here get exported, mostly as 700-pound yearlings. The Census of Agriculture says 6,384 cattle were sold in Chaffee County in 2007. A bovine’s body is about 65 percent water. Run those numbers, and you get something like 332,000 gallons exported inside cow hides.

That’s about an acre-foot, and not that much water in the general scheme of things.

But it does illustrate that Chaffee County already exports water for consumption elsewhere, and has for years. Plus, that doesn’t count the water that cattle drink and then respire into the air (those clouds of steam around their nostrils that you see on cold mornings) or the water that evaporates from cow plops, etc.

Just how much water it takes to make a pound of beef depends on whom you ask. The beef industry estimates 441 gallons, while some vegetarians say it’s more like 2,500 gallons. A lot of people argue that bottled water is wasteful, and there are people who feel the same way about producing and eating red meat.

In other words, if you wanted to make some kind of moral argument against the Nestlé proposal, you could make the same argument against ranching. Both the Nestlé plan and a cattle ranch provide some open space and pay property taxes while exporting water out of this basin.

I like my burgers, steaks, and roasts, and I avoid buying bottled water. But when you get right down to it, it’s hard to make a distinction on the basis of “exporting water.”

That said, I still don’t trust Nestlé. So I hope the county attaches several conditions to the permit:

1) A water meter where the pipe emerges at Johnson Village, to be inspected regularly by the state engineer’s representative, to be sure the company isn’t taking a drop more than it’s entitled to. This meter’s readings would also be available on the Internet, so any citizen could check it.

2) The electric meters for Nestlé’s pumping apparatus would likewise be visible to the public, as there’s a correlation between electric consumption and the pumping rate, and this would be a way to check the water-meter figures.

3) A web-cam at the water loading terminal at Johnson Village, so that concerned citizens can further monitor water export.

4) If Nestlé ever takes a drop more than it is legally entitled to, the permit is instantly voided and the county must close the outlet valve and turn off the power to the pumps.

Those measures should protect the public interest (our state constitution says water is the property of the public) and Nestlé’s private interest (our constitution also grants a right to divert water for “beneficial use,” which means there’s a way to make money from the diversion).

It’s not that I like the idea of Nestlé trucking local mountain spring water to the corporate Arrowhead bottling plant in Denver, but I don’t see any legal way to stop it, as long as the company follows state water laws and abides by Chaffee County’s land-use regulations. The best we can do is to be sure the company plays by the rules.

— Ed Quillen

Ed Quillen, columnist for the Denver Post, is still calculating the amount of water exported from Scotland in a fifth of 10-year-old Ardbeg.