Environment Report

Oregonians Fight Over Nestlé’s Grip On Water Rights

At least 1,600 signatures will be delivered Monday morning to the Hood River County elections office by county residents with the Local Water Alliance. Their petition will place the Hood River Water Protection Measure on the 2016 ballot, in response to seven years of planning that would give Nestlé staggering access to vital waters.

With each year, more voices trumpet stronger warnings about the crippling effects of natural resource depletion. Many fear that we have arrived at a place where profit, convenience, and complacency have outweighed scientific foresight into the long-game of civilization. Oregonians’ water rights remain challenged by an extensive plan to bottle water from of the City of Cascade Locks. Although the preservation of our limited reservoirs is hardly a game — and definitely not one most people consider hedging bets on — companies like Nestlé are upping the ante to ensure their dominance over water, which produces steady streams of cash.

The seven-year battle wages on against Switzerland’s food-stuff conglomerate, for the installation of a bottling plant in Cascade Locks. If Nestlé were to prevail, they would be exporting 200 million gallons of water, neatly packaged inside two billion plastic bottles, per year. The water would be drawn from Oxbow Springs, a sacred aquifer (according to native tribes) and a protected resource (according Oregon’s water laws) that directly nourishes its above-ground community and the delicate regional ecosystem.

Charmaine Billey, of The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, holds a sign to protest the proposed Nestle water bottling plant in the city of Cascade Locks. (Photo: ASHLEY SMITH / STATESMAN JOURNAL)
Charmaine Billey protests the proposed Nestle water bottling plant in the city of Cascade Locks. Photo by Ashley Smith / Statesman Journal.

As it turns out, the reservoir in question extends into the protected lands of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs. The projected trade of spring water from Oxbow for any other water infringes on the Treaty of 1855 which protects tribal rights to harvest fish and game from the surrounding area.

The simple science is that cooler water supplies more oxygen, which then creates a more fruitful spawning environment for the salmon. With sweltering summer temperatures giving way to a drought emergency, the environment is already naturally compromised. John North of ODFW acknowledged the effect of historically high temperatures on the salmon population, saying they’ve “never had mortalities at this scale.” The salmon couldn’t adjust to temperatures in the Columbia River rising a month quicker than usual this year, as nearly half of the population didn’t survive.

Droughts announced by Governor Kate Brown this November, in southeastern Oregon, may seem far away enough from the proposed bottling facility, but they are still close enough to cause her to ask for a new review of procedures in consideration of the drought. Her demands have fallen short of stopping the deal.

The deal announced last January involves the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the City of Cascade Locks. The department would trade equal amounts of water from Oxbow Springs for the city’s well water, and possibly an aquifer at Herman Creek. Basically, Nestlé would export bottled water under the Arrowhead brand, from the springs, trucking it out to any national buyer. Then, they would drive truckloads of regionally sourced water back into the springs. The idea here is to replenish the springs, but it begs the question who will replenish the wells? The City Council of Cascade Locks moved in favor of this plan, and the vote was designed to bypass a public interest review. Cascade Locks Port Commission unanimously approved the drilling of three test wells, which Nestlé started late November. They have also undertaken geophysical exploratory work to confirm their plans.

Governor Kate Brown, photo by Thomson Reuters
Governor Kate Brown, photo by Thomson Reuters

Last summer, Brown declared July to be Water Awareness Month, but not until the first week of November did she force ODFW to pull their application to the state, demanding a new application with a public interest review. “Water is the foundation for our economies, communities, ecosystems and quality of life,” writes Kate Brown in her executive order from July, “Now is the time to get ahead of our water resource challenges and improve our resiliency to drought to prevent much more serious problems.”

Despite Nestlé’s promise to add fifty new jobs to Hood River County, the Local Water Alliance (LWA) maintains that the company has no real foundation of public interest. Currently, LWA is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that will smite the possibility for Nestle and ban any future for a water bottling plant in the county. “The reason is simple,” it reads, “there is not currently enough water in our County to meet the needs of residential and agricultural users and our salmon fishery.” The ballot will prohibit anyone from bottling water for commercial sale from Hood River County.

It’s up to Oregonians to continue to keep their sight on the long-term benefit of replenishing natural resources instead of spending them. Surely, this could encourage a sense of camaraderie between communities not yet burdened by foreign hands dipping into their reserves. It only takes one legal precedent for Nestlé to be followed by Coca-Cola, and another to stop them.

Additional reporting and editing provided by Sean Ongley.
Jen Scholten

By Jen Scholten

Jen remains curious and inspired by all ventures unfamiliar and unconventional. A transplant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, she continues her creative discovery in an artistically inclined community of dreamers. She functions with a background in photography and an insatiable desire to express her swirling thoughts through wordplay.

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