In Salida, Colorado, recent disputes between Nestlé and residents have flared up over Nestlé’s plan to withdraw 65 million gallons of water from their springs. Nestlé wants the rights to Arkansas Valley spring water in order to pipe it five miles to a truck stop and then ship it 100 miles to a Denver bottling facility. Nestlé promised the community it would replace the water it took, restore riverside habitats, and monitor wells and water levels, but residents still are against the plan because of the effect it will have on the environment and doubts that Nestlé will follow through and be the “good neighbor” it promises to be.
Nestlé tempts Colorado residents with the lure of jobs and tax money, saying construction of the pipeline will create more than 50 jobs and there will be millions of dollars from property taxes and gasoline taxes as truckers get gas. It sent eight water engineers, lawyers, botanists and biologists to the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners recently for a five-hour presentation. More than 150 residents stayed for a four-hour public comment period that followed. Residents asked for more time to look through the studies and reports and make a decision, and many residents pointed to examples of other communities across the U.S. who have had problems with Nestlé and questioned how the springs and wells would have held up during past droughts.
In McCloud, California, a town of 1,400 fought back against Nestlé after it realized the implications of a bottled water plant in its community. A former lumber town located at the base of Mt. Shasta, McCloud is a small town where square and round dancing are commonplace and visitors come for the beautiful landscape, trout fishing, skiing, and hiking. The town depended on the lumber industry for economic growth, and after the lumber company used what it could and left, McCloud was desperate for a source of jobs. But even during these hard economic times and with the promise of new jobs, residents fought Nestlé to preserve what they had left: their springs.
It all began in 2003 when Nestlé proposed a 1-million-square-foot water bottling plant to take 1,600 acre-feet of spring water and unlimited amounts of groundwater per year from the McCloud River under a 100-year contract.
“That is one tactic Nestlé often uses, funding these ongoing court battles which they have an upper hand in compared to citizens, who are often retired and don’t have the kind of money to hire attorneys,” Lapidus said.
Over the years, Nestlé scaled down the size of the plant and the amount of water it would extract, and it agreed to conduct studies on the environmental impact. Eventually it cancelled the contract to build the plant. But in February Nestlé held a town meeting to announce its new plan for the bottled water plant.
Lapidus, who attended the meeting, said people expressed all kinds of concerns ranging from their democratic right to control their own water to the ecological impact of extracting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day and transporting it on the small, rural roads. Nestlé promised to monitor their withdrawal and be sustainable users, but Lapidus thinks these promises are unfounded.
“These phrases make it sound like they’re going to do the right thing, but what we’ve seen in other communities where Nestlé has come in is that they make a lot of promises about being a good neighbor, and then, in reality, a lot of people’s wells go dry.”
The meeting was only informational, so Nestlé just talked about their plans and listened to the concerns of residents. Lapidus said Nestlé held the meeting to cover their bases because residents fought back when they were not informed of the plans the first time around. Now, they had their chance to express their opinions, and Lapidus said the comments were roughly 3-1 in opposition to Nestlé.
Although the plans for the plant are being discussed now, Nestlé cannot do anything until after the two-year environmental study. The composition of the council, who will vote on the plant, is likely to change with board elections before the study finishes, so the future of the plant is still unknown.
In Mecosta County, Michigan, in 2001, residents found out about Nestlé’s plan to build a plant in the area and came together to fight the corporation. Terry Swier learned that Nestlé was planning to withdraw 400 gallons per minute for bottled water, so she created the group Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) to protect the cold-water trout streams and lakes that attract outdoor enthusiasts to fish, canoe, and kayak. The group went to the local township meeting and tried to get a moratorium to delay Nestlé’s plans, but they were unsuccessful. They conducted three referendums in the county and two townships, which showed residents opposed the plant 2-1.
The ensuing court battles are continuing. Swier said her group has spent more than $1 million so far and they are looking at unknown expenditures in the future. For them, there have been highs and lows in the legal battle. The high was when residents won the lawsuit against Nestlé. But Nestlé appealed the court’s decision, and the legal battles continued, with the court ruling that the plant was harmful to the environment but the economic benefits were more important. It allowed the pumping to continue with a limit of 200 gallons a minute. MCWC appealed, but the court upheld the decision.
Currently, Nestlé is looking to retry the entire case instead of settling with MCWC and lowering its pumping. Swier said the battle has been long and difficult, and she compares the fight to David and Goliath.
“Nestlé has these deep pockets and unlimited resources and unlimited environmental experts, but MCWC has held its ground. … MCWC will continue to fight this giant because all of us believe that what we are doing is the right thing to do, and I look at it, and so do the members, as we’re protecting this for future generations.”
Other towns are taking different measures to prevent Nestlé from taking their water. In 2006, Barnstead, New Hampshire, became the first municipality in the U.S. to protect its water by passing a water rights ordinance to assert community rights over corporate rights. After watching other towns deal with Nestlé, Barnstead, which has the Suncook River running through it and four lakes within the town’s limits, wanted to do something to prevent Nestlé from doing the same thing to them it had done in other communities. This became the birthplace for water rights ordinances.
Barnstead got the idea from Pennsylvania, where a coalition of environmentalists, farmers, unions, and the governor helped pass legislation to limit pollution from corporate farm feedlots. They had drafted ordinances that asserted community rights to self-governance and banned corporations from damaging operations in townships. The Alliance for Democracy’s Caplan attended a class on fighting corporations held by one of the Pennsylvania lawyers and learned about their strategy. “I came out of this [class] totally inspired by what these towns were doing and wanted to find a way to use it in my water organizing,” she said.
Caplan brought the idea to Gail Darrell, another Barnstead resident, and she helped draft a similar ordinance regarding water rights. Darrell and other residents spent the next year educating the town about the ordinance, and when the vote came up at a town meeting, they voted 136-1 in favor of it. Other communities, such as Nottingham, New Hampshire, followed suit to protect their water.
“This is for me very inspiring work,” Caplan said. “It gets to the very heart of how our system operates, how it has evolved to give corporations so much power, and how that power can be used to take away our right to water.”
Kennebunk, Maine, is looking to Barnstead for guidance on how to get Nestlé to leave their community after protests and extensive media coverage did not work. Opponents of the plant are led by Jamilla El-Shafei, who co-founded Save Our Water with her husband in opposition to the plant. She and her husband first learned about the plant from a small press release in the newspaper. She asked the water district about the plant and was told there had been a blurb in the last newsletter.
“I started emailing and calling friends and nobody knew about this pending contract,” she said. “When they found out they were really upset.”
El-Shafei is an experienced peace activist, so she said she already had many media contacts and began to organize a press conference at her house. The water district superintendent and 245 people came for a question-and-answer session.
El-Shafei decided to hold a press conference the day of the contract signing between Nestlé and the water district. The water district had announced that the meeting would be at the town hall, a large venue, and take public comments; however, when the press and 150 residents showed up, the meeting arrangements changed.
“They decided to have a closed meeting in a little room that housed 15 people, and most of the people in the room were media and five citizens,” she said. “People started banging on the windows and saying, ‘Let us in! Let us in!’”
El-Shafei said the residents only wanted a chance to express their opinions. “They’re just concerned citizens who have done their homework and understand what kind of corporation Nestlé is and understand once you get Nestlé in your community, you can’t get them out.”
After the extensive media coverage and public disapproval, the water district decided to table the contract permanently, so it is essentially dead. But, once again, the battle is not over.
“There’s billions of dollars of money to be made in the life of the contract, so they’re fighting us very fiercely and we’re having a huge PR battle between Nestlé/Poland Springs and water activists in Southern Maine,” El-Shafei said.
Save Our Water succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot in November for a six-month moratorium on Nestlé extracting and testing water. They also got an Ordinance Review Committee appointed and submitted a rights-based ordinance similar to Barnstead’s. Nestlé also submitted an ordinance based on their original contract.
El-Shafei doubts the Ordinance Review Committee will approve their ordinance, and, if that is the case, she hopes to get the moratorium extended and start a petition drive to get the ordinance on the ballot so the community can decide for themselves.
“We don’t want them in our community, and I think eventually this will come up for a vote,” she said. “I think we will win the vote, but Nestlé will keep fighting us. That is what they do. They have deep pockets, and they will just try to wear us down. But we’re very resilient.”
Madison County, Florida, is an example of a community where Nestlé controls the water from the springs, paying next to nothing for the rights and permits, and continues to pump despite local water restrictions. Some residents tried to stand up to Nestlé by organizing groups such as Save Our Springs and Friends and Citizens of Crystal Springs, but they were unsuccessful against the corporate giant, and Nestlé continues to control the water.
Nestlé paid $230 for a permit to pump water until 2018 and has received $196,000 in tax refunds for creating jobs, but the company refused to lower the amount of water it pumps even when the local water management staff recommended it because of a severe drought, according to an article by Ivan Penn in the St. Petersburg Times.
Jon Dinges, director of resource management of the Suwannee River Water Management District, wrote in a memo dated Nov. 15, 2002, that the staff recommended reducing the amount of water Nestlé could withdraw from 1.47 million gallons a day to 400,000, Penn reported. “The current drought has reduced the flow of Madison Blue Springs to record lows,” Dinges wrote to the water management district’s governing board. “The drought has become severe since the permit was issued, thus requiring a reduction of the [average daily withdrawal] to ensure resource protection.”
The governing board met with Nestlé in January 2003 to discuss changing the permit, Penn reported, and Nestlé and Enterprise Florida Inc., the state’s economic development entity, argued against the changes. Nestlé promised to invest $100 million in the plant over seven years and create 300 jobs, but only if the permit was not changed. It was not. Even though Nestlé promised to create 300 jobs over five years, the most it has ever employed is about 250. The number dropped to 205 late in 2007, and 46 of those employees lived in Georgia, not Florida.
Dinges said in an interview with DCBureau.org he does not remember what Nestlé said to make the water management district change their minds. He said the incident occurred too many years ago, and they deal with so many permits that Nestlé’s, even though it is one of the largest permits ever issued in this very rural area, does not stick out in his mind.
“I don’t recall,” he said. “It’s been a number of years. I’m sure they argued with us to some degree on that, but I don’t remember the details.”
In fact, Dinges said, Nestlé is very easy to deal with. “We’ve found that they’ve been quite responsive. … I think that they know that maintaining compliance with the water management district is very critical to their operation. If there’s a question we have, or something we need to address, we find that they’re pretty quick to respond to it and address whatever information needs we have.”
At the time, the president and CEO of Enterprise Florida Inc. was Darrell Kelley. He also could not remember the economic development company supporting Nestlé and influencing the water district’s decision to increase the amount of water Nestlé could pump. Nobody else at the economic development agency could remember this incident either, or, for that matter, were even still working there, according to Stuart Doyle of Enterprise Florida Inc.