DENVER — In rural Chaffee County, Colo., one of the world's largest beverage companies has discovered water it deems fit for a bottle: clean and crisp, with the mountain spring flavor people are willing to pay for.
Nestle Waters North America wants to tap an aquifer feeding a pair of springs near Salida, southwest of Colorado Springs, and draw 65 million gallons of water per year to bottle and sell under its Arrowhead brand.
But many mountain residents say Nestle should go bottle someone else's water.
"I'm afraid they will pump and pump until they suck it dry," said Michele Riggio, a Salida physical therapist who has led the opposition.
The conflict is the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle against the bottled water industry, which has enjoyed strong growth over the last decade thanks to the beverage's popularity among consumers who eschew tap water and soft drinks.
As companies like Nestle, which operates 50 spring sites around the country, seek to acquire new water sources, communities have increasingly resisted, said Noah Hall, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and an expert in water law.
"By the nature of its business -- taking water out of the ground and putting it in a bottle and selling it -- Nestle is a lightning rod for opposition wherever they go," Hall said, citing conflicts in Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Washington and California.
Such conflicts seem to have more to do with larger social concerns than the specific projects, said Bruce Lauerman, a natural resources manager for Nestle, a division of the Switzerland-based company.
"It's more a debate about corporations, who owns the water, and what is the best and highest use of water," he said.
Because a good supply of spring water isn't easy to come by, Nestle and other companies are reluctant to let one go without a fight, Hall said. Such conflicts usually wind up in court, where he said judges rarely denied water companies the right to at least some water.
"The opponents don't usually come away satisfied. They want to run them out of town, and that almost never happens," Hall said.
In Chaffee County, with a population of about 17,000, Nestle's research led it several years ago to the Ruby Mountain and Bighorn springs, Lauerman said.
The company wanted a local source for water it sells in the western U.S. -- a product that Nestle has been trucking from California to other states.
Nestle's plan in Colorado is to extract water from the aquifer, pipe it several miles to a truck stop, then send it to a bottling facility in Denver. Because it will be taking water that otherwise would flow into the Arkansas River, Nestle intends to replenish the river with water purchased from the Denver-area city of Aurora.
The plan, Nestle officials say, leaves more than enough water. Nestle will extract less than 10% of the average spring flows, and snowmelt and precipitation will recharge the aquifer, Lauerman said.
The company also intends to restore the land around the springs, including an old fishery, to its natural habitat and preserve 100 acres of land, a plan praised by state wildlife officials.
Nestle also touts the economic benefits to Chaffee County, saying it would provide short-term construction jobs and about $80,000 in annual taxes, as well as donations to charities.
But many residents regard Nestle's assurances with skepticism. And what happens, they ask, if there's a drought?
"They're taking and not giving," said Riggio, who learned of Nestle's plan soon after viewing the documentary "Flow," which examines the world's dwindling fresh water supply. The film reinforced her conviction that water should not be wasted on "the very unsustainable practice of putting water in bottles and trucking it all over the place."
"I think tap water is just fine," said Riggio, 45.
She and other residents, who have packed county meetings to protest the project, also question whether the county will realize much economic benefit and worry that Nestle's trucks, making 25 round trips per day, will snarl traffic on mountain passes.
Frank McMurry, a rancher who sold Nestle the Bighorn springs property in 2007 for $860,000, and other supporters of the project said it could spur businesses to invest in the area. They dismiss worries that it could deplete water supplies or worsen traffic.
McMurry, a longtime resident, noted that some of the biggest opponents of the project were newcomers.
"They got their spot in heaven and don't want any change," said McMurry, 70. "The old-timers -- and there's not many of us left -- you never see them protesting. But by God, the longhairs and the ponytails come out of the woodwork just to protest something."
Chaffee County commissioners will consider the proposal this month. County development director Don Reimer said one topic of interest will be the possible effect on the aquifer.
And as always seems to happen with water in the West, there are varied opinions. Several reports have drawn different conclusions on the potential effects on the watershed.
Correll writes for The Times.