EAU CLAIRE — Voices both for and against a proposal to bring a bottled water company to Eau Claire spoke Tuesday evening at a community discussion that attracted over a hundred people.

A panel of 10 people shared information about the $65 million plant that Niagara Bottling Co. wants to build in the city’s Gateway Northwest Business Park and what it could mean to the community.

Several people on the panel who are wary of the proposal spoke about depleted groundwater in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area, using it as a cautionary tale.

“There are many regions with similar conditions where overpumping was problematic,” said Sarah Vitale, an assistant professor of geology at UW-Eau Claire.

She urged the city to create a comprehensive water plan and to get updated modeling of the area’s groundwater system.

“We need to have a better understanding of what our water resources look like,” she said.

Lane Berg, city utilities manager, expressed confidence that the municipal water system and the aquifer that feeds it will have no trouble providing the water the bottling plant would use.

When it first opens, the plant expects to use 155.1 million gallons annually, and a future expansion would double that consumption. That initial phase would make Niagara Bottling Co. the city’s No. 2 water user behind Nestle USA, but it would jump to No. 1 after the expansion.

But Berg said Eau Claire has more than enough water to handle the bottling plant’s use without impacting the underground supply.

“We’re vastly different from Texas,” he said in response to a question posed by the audience. “The recharge rate here is tremendous.”

The aquifer under the city’s wellfield benefits from being “almost a like a bowl” with higher ground to the east and the Chippewa River flowing nearby, Berg said.

For those interested in learning more about the city’s water system, there are tours of the municipal water plant being planned for Saturday.

Tuesday’s community meeting on the bottling plant proposal was done in the wake of the deal proving controversial when it first became public last month.

The City Council was to vote May 24 on a deal to bring the company here, but opted to postpone a decision until June 14 due to concerns raised by residents.

Tuesday’s meeting was an effort to address those worries before next week’s vote.

City officials spoke about the need for the economic growth, new jobs, property tax revenues and water payments the new plant would bring.

“Communities need net growth to continue to grow and provide services,” said Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager.

If the city rejects a proposal like Niagara’s, White also worried that could give Eau Claire a reputation as an anti-business city.

“That does make economic development and recruiting businesses more difficult,” he said.

Mickey Judkins owns Eau Claire clothing store Details and had held a position in the state Commerce Department under Gov. Jim Doyle. She said she’s very pro-economic development, but urged the city to not make a hasty decision on a deal that could have long-term repercussions.

“I’m really concerned we may not be making a good decision on our water supply,” she said. “Do not race to a short-term decision when these decisions can impact our community for generations.”

Audience members and some of the panelists also raised questions about the environmental costs of producing disposable plastic bottles — only a portion of which will be recycled.

Jane Mohler, a retired public health worker, said only 30% of the type of plastic bottles Niagara uses are recycled. The rest end up in landfills, incinerators or the environment and have impacts on human health, she said.

A representative from a local business group pointed to Eau Claire coming out on top of a list of cities Niagara is considering — indicating the company would move on to another place if it can’t build here.

“If we want to reduce the use of plastic bottles, it’s not going to be done by turning this down,” said Scott Rogers, vice president of governmental affairs at the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. “Niagara is going to build a bottling plant somewhere.”

To trim use of plastics and other disposable products will require education, he added.

The city has pledged to create a new full-time sustainability coordinator position with some of the new property taxes and water fees from the bottling plant.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter