By Jamie Leary

SALIDA, Colo. (CBS4) – Nestle Waters, now known as BlueTrition, will renew its contract to pump water from the Upper Arkansas River Basin for bottled water production. With the historic drought, the agreement has been met with opposition.

“Today we’re just trying to do damage control frankly. We need restorations that don’t allow pumping in a way that’s going to injure our aquifer and more than anything we need to have an environmental professional ecological review. There has not been one done since 2009,” said Angie Thompson, a spokeswoman at the Central Colorado Climate Coalition.

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Thompson was among about 20 people protesting outside the Chaffee County Courthouse Tuesday, hoping to influence commissioners to make considerations before agreeing upon the conditions of the permit.

“First of all, a shorter limit on the permit. Ten years is far too long. The amount of change we’ve seen in our valley and the climate, the drought that has happened in 10 years is significant. Our valley’s taken on more citizens, more housing than it ever has had before and all of that needs to be accounted for in our water use,” Thompson said. “We need to be thinking about how we’re going to continue to grow and where that water is going to come from for people to be able to live here.”

Earlier this month, Chaffee County Commissioners voted 2-1 allowing BlueTrition to bottle and export 65 million gallons of Colorado water annually, supplemented with water from the Colorado River Watershed.

With monitoring from the state, BlueTrition is within its legal right to do so, as long as it follows an augmentation plan, meaning every drop it takes must be replaced and done so without injury to individual water rights.

“Companies, people, corporations, entities, all have the right to appropriate water in Colorado and that’s in our constitution,” said Kevin Ryan, state engineer and director of water resources for the Department of Natural Resources. “We are in special situation in the Arkansas river basin where all the senior water rights appropriated pretty much everything that would be available hydrologically in any one year, in addition to that we have a very important compact with Kansas on the Aransas River. For those two reasons it’s difficult to make a new appropriation like this. Therefore, we would normally have to deny that well permit; however, through this augmentation plan, if Nestle [BlueTriton] can be covered by augmentation and put water back in the river to keep the river whole to ensure that now water users downstream are injured due to a depletive effect, then Nestle is operating according to the law.”

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The state has the right to halt operations if BlueTrition cannot fulfill the augmentation plan. During a drought year, that may sound difficult, but Ryan says it’s possible.

“The impact is not immediate because we’re talking about water that is diverted on the west slope and stored and brought over to the east slope and then stored, so it’s not taking water directly out of the river at a time when there’s low flow, it’s taking water very often from run off from snowmelt and bringing it to the front range for those augmentation purposes and being stored,” said Ryan.

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Thompson still has a hard time believing there will be no injury and she says its also the idea that Colorado water is being used for profit out of state she has a problem with.

“The Arkansas River is having their water replaced, but that water comes from somewhere. That water comes from the Western Slope that is now in a declared state of emergency because of the drought,” she said. “Our state is on fire. Here we are sending that water through the trans-basin pipeline to our reservoir, when they desperately need it there, and that water that they’re replacing is exclusively for bottling in plastic and shipped out all over the country for millions of dollars in corporate profit. It doesn’t help the people of Colorado at all.”

The state will confirm daily to ensure BlueTriton is operating according to its augmentation plan and making the replacements to ensure that senior water rights on the upper Arkansas are not injured.

BlueTriton’s Natural Resource Manager for the Western Region, Larry Lawrence, issued the following statement Tuesday:

“The 1041 permit process is incredibly comprehensive and requires hundreds of data checkpoints related to the sustainability – current and long term – of our operations. Years of data, and thousands of pages of reports, demonstrate not only our compliance with our permit requirements since 2009 but also the complexities of the work we do to ensure sustainable operations long term. This permit process – which is an extension request of our existing 1041 permit – has been ongoing for nearly two years and has involved significant public engagement and review.

At BlueTriton Brands, we work with local, state, and federal agencies in Colorado – including the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and Water Courts – to help ensure we meet all regulatory requirements. Our water withdrawals are fully replaced, rigorously regulated and overseen by Chaffee County and the State Engineer’s Office to help protect the springs and other water users.

We have made a long-term investment in Colorado, and we take great care to operate in a responsible and sustainable way to help preserve and protect Ruby Mountain Springs and the surrounding watershed.

We are pleased that the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners’ decision earlier this month will give us the opportunity to continue operating in Chaffee County and we look forward to working with the County as they finalize the permit conditions. We are committed to helping maintain the long-term sustainability of Ruby Mountain Springs and furthering our partnerships in the community.”

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Tuesday evening, Chaffee County Commissioners agreed to take more time to consider the conditions of the permit agreement with the company and planned to meet to discuss possible considerations next week, with a final decision in August.

Jamie Leary