By Jennifer Swacina
When I first heard about Nestlé mining water— right here in Chaffee County—I wished I had been here in 2009 to have joined those who rallied against it. Be careful what you wish for!
In late 2019, I happened to read an article covering a routine county commissioner’s meeting with discussion that Nestlé’s permit was expiring. Some county staff wanted to quietly grant the company’s request for a ten-year extension to continue the water mining operation, but the Chaffee County Commissioners determined the process needed public comment. They scheduled a public hearing for six months later. Unbeknownst to them, by April 2020, we would be in the midst of a global pandemic. The hearing was then pushed back to October 2020.
In the meantime, a friend introduced me to Tom Bomer, who also felt called to speak up against what is clearly wrong—extracting water from an arid region and trucking it hundreds of miles to be packaged in single-use plastic. We were both aware of the reputation this Swiss-based, billion-dollar corporation earned for committing environmental and humanitarian abuses worldwide. With the support of Tom’s wife, Francie, we formed Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water and gathered mass local support, evidenced by NestléAVE yard signs popping up around the county.
We also joined forces with groups from around the U.S. and Canada, who oppose Nestlé in their communities. We learned that Nestlé’s playbook is basically the same everywhere they go; Chaffee County was no exception. Nestlé scouts out communities which are lured by promises of jobs, afraid of lawsuits, and who cannot provide the necessary oversight. Nestlé then cozies up to influential people and finagles ways to get insiders into positions of power. In 2009, the professor who sold Nestlé the property also had final say in the ecological report that was required for their permit approval. Nestlé purchased the property from the professor for $2.85 million, though it is valued at less than $140,000 dollars in today’s market. It’s not likely a coincidence that a couple of Nestlé’s consultants became members of the planning commission.
Tom and I were allowed to represent “the opposition” at the initial hearing in October of 2020. We went head-to-head with Nestlé’s high-paid lawyers. They gave a slick presentation, dressed in fancy suits and high-heels (clearly not from around here) but we gave them a run for their money. We pointed out non-compliance with their land management plans regarding monitoring of wetlands, grazing requirements and noxious weed removal. They did not meet the criteria to hire 50% of their truck drivers locally (there are currently only three Chaffee County drivers). And, in over ten years, they failed to meet their commitment to put the land into a conservation easement “concurrent with construction of the project.” These were big reasons their permit was granted in the first place.
Nestlé swapped prime river-frontage land, which they had specifically promised to protect from development, to a well-connected family who plan to build homes there. Now Colorado Parks and Wildlife is requesting additional development of a parking lot and a road for fishing access, should the agency take on the management of a land easement for Nestlé. The desirable and developable land on the approximately 130 acres will be developed. Yet Nestlé seems to be holding the “conservation” easement hostage, making it contingent on a permit renewal.
A select few have benefited, but the benefits to the county do not outweigh the losses, which is a requirement for the permit Nestlé needs to operate. Nestlé’s “community giving” includes donating nearly 300,000 single-use plastic water bottles from 2009 to 2019. An independent economist analyzed the benefits vs. the losses to the county, relying on Nestlé’s data and not including ecological costs or costs outside of the county. After several months of waiting for the results, the economist concluded it was “essentially a wash.” Nestlé then hired their own economist to create a rebuttal report. Nestlé’s economist claimed the Ruby Mountain spring water that Nestlé sells as Arrowhead Brand is not any loss to us, because the amount of water they extract from the aquifer is “replaced” into the Arkansas River with water from the Colorado River.
The late Robert Parker, with Central Colorado Climate Coalition, described this unequal water exchange at a public meeting: “It is like the commissioners of years past managed a car lot. They let Nestlé take a brand-new limited-edition Corvette from the Chaffee County lot. Nestlé, in return, left as a full-value trade-in a well-used 1972 Ford Pinto, and the commissioners agreed it was an even and fair trade …”
Now the current commissioners have an easy way to get out of this bad deal. In March 2021, Nestlé Waters North America sold to private equity firms, One Rock Capital and Metropoulos. The new company’s name is BlueTriton Brands. Commissioners can use a clause in the permit (4.6) to simply deny transferring the permit to the new company, but as of this writing, they have not decided to invoke that. We’ve been sounding the alarm that as bad as Nestlé is, these private equity firms, who do not operate transparently and are known for slashing costs, are even worse. The commissioners have expressed this concern too.
Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water will give a presentation at the last meeting allowing for public comment on June 1. Nestlé/BlueTriton will get the last word at a meeting on June 15. Then the commissioners will deliberate on whether or not to continue allowing this senseless operation of sucking and trucking up to 65 million gallons of water per year out of the Arkansas River Valley. With record-breaking wildfires, drought, and all the problems associated with recycling plastic, let’s hope they vote ‘em out of Chaffee County.
Jen Swacina had a mid-life crisis and decided to take on a powerful corporation that embodies most everything she finds wrong with the world, including greed, corruption, plastic pollution and water privatization.