Chaffee Commissioners review BlueTriton Annual Report

Local residents protest Tuesday in Buena Vista against BlueTriton Brands being allowed to use Chaffee County water for the company's Arrowhead brand bottled water (courtesy photo).

Chaffee County Commissioners convened a public hearing Tuesday to review the 2021 Annual Report concerning BlueTriton Brands’ Arrowhead bottled-water operations in Chaffee County.

Commissioners heard reports by Larry Lawrence of BlueTriton and Chaffee County staff and consultants, followed by public comments. Commissioners ultimately continued the public hearing until 1 p.m. May 3.

The May 3 meeting will provide an opportunity for BlueTriton representatives to respond to negative public comments and for the County Commissioners to obtain additional information from various experts, including representatives from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District.

Chaffee County Planner Christie Barton summarized the County staff report, which included a report by water resources engineering firm W.W. Wheeler and a letter from water attorney David Shohet. Both consultants reported “no violation of permit conditions relating to water.”

Barton said other 1041 permit conditions have been met or “are under ongoing monitoring,” noting:

  • BlueTriton pumped 71.17 acre-feet of water in 2021, while the permit allows 196 acre-feet.
  • Pumping has not adversely affected Bighorn Spring.
  • The wetlands on BlueTriton property are stable.
  • Noxious weeds are present on the property.
  • BlueTriton has until the end of the year to implement a conservation easement.

She also said a beaver was trapped and removed from the property because its activity was interfering with the flume used to monitor water flows from Ruby Mountain Spring into the Arkansas River.

Shohet reported that replacement of water pumped by BlueTriton fell behind by 1.2 acre-feet in October. In response to that mistake, BlueTriton and the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District have increased communications from monthly to weekly.

Shohet said the Upper Ark District increased replacement water releases to make up the 1.2 acre-foot deficit over the following month and ended the year exceeding replacement requirements by 12 acre-feet.

Commissioner Keith Baker expressed concern about the noxious weed issue, referencing permit requirements.

Kayla Malone, Chaffee County Weed Department supervisor said noxious weeds were “identified at Ruby Springs and remediated.”

Following the staff report, Larry Lawrence, natural resource manager for BlueTriton’s Western Region, presented a summary of the company’s 526-page annual report.

He said BlueTriton is responding to the under-replacement of 1.2 acre-feet of water in October 2021 by working with the Upper Ark District to produce forecast models so that they can “stay ahead of” replacement releases.

Lawrence reported that Alpine Eco, which is now doing the monitoring work formerly done by Colorado Mountain College, identified the noxious weeds on the property.

He also said the conservation easement for the BlueTriton property has been delayed because Colorado Parks and Wildlife wants a new survey to remove from the conservation easement the portion of land being dedicated to a road easement to widen the one-lane section of County Road 300.

He said the goal is to get the conservation easement management plan to Parks and Wildlife by June 1 to meet the year-end deadline.

Public comments were universally critical of BlueTriton, the use of local groundwater for bottled water and the role of bottled water in the proliferation of plastic pollution.

Jennifer Swacina of Salida noted violations of the 1041 permit, including malfunctions of mandated monitoring equipment and past failures to identify eight noxious weed species on the property.

Karen Lundberg of Salida, concerned about limited local water resources, said she owns three properties with wells around Salida. One well “went totally dry,” and “with one the flows are problematic.”

Commissioner Greg Felt pointed out that the County is in talks with the Upper Ark District “about filling in data gaps” regarding local groundwater resources by using BlueTriton monies that amount to $180,000 over 10 years.

Angie Thompson of Coaldale expressed concern that no third-party “ecological professionals” are monitoring BlueTriton compliance with the conditions of the 1041 permit.

She reminded commissioners that Delia Malone’s original ecological report from 2009 states that the aquifer will be damaged if pumped during drought conditions.

Chris Shure of Coaldale also expressed concerns that the County has not contracted third-party entities to review operations, and Commissioner Felt noted that the County already has third-party consultants in place for “some of that.”

John McGowan of Salida emphasized that the business holding this permit is owned by a private equity partnership.

Speaking as a financial consultant, McGowan said the profit-driven private-equity business model is to cut costs wherever possible. Then, “The business will be sold in 3-5 years” to pay off loans and make a profit.

Referencing the conservation easement, he accused BlueTriton of “presenting excuses for over 13 years,” which he identified as a “slow roll” business tactic to delay meeting permit conditions.

He asked if the County Commissioners have determined the consequences of failing to complete the easement by year’s end and urged commissioners to communicate those consequences to company ownership.

Tom Bomer of Salida said he supports all previous public comments, adding, “You have no reason to trust BlueTriton Brands – full stop.” He insisted that the County make BlueTriton “pay for more oversight.”

Joe Stone