Environment Opinion

Nestling in with Cascade Locks City Administrators

Why all Oregonians should care about Nestlé’s plan with the water supply in Cascade Locks.

Water is, of course, the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population, and there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have the right to water. That’s an extreme solution. The other view is that water is foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give foodstuff a value so that we are all aware that it has a price, and then, that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to the water, and there are many different possibilities there.  -Peter Brabeck, Nestlé CEO

A waterfall feeds Sandy River above my favorite beach
A waterfall feeds Sandy River above my favorite beach

Years ago now, I was reminded of why I keep living in Oregon. On a hot day an old friend took me out to a secret swimming hole along the Sandy River, one far from the crowds that usually throng that warm, lazy river on similar days. A hike down to the water, crossing three distinct ecosystems and a treasury of medicinal plants, revealed a delight to all senses: a deep swimming hole graced with an aquifer-fed waterfall. You can swim right underneath it and stand up next to the rock face to be baptized in the cold, clear, pure water. Bald eagles plunge dramatically hundreds of feet down in the space of a breath, fishing on high from winds that wind around the basalt cliffs guarding the aquifer that makes this whole system possible. Pumping out of a hidden crack, the water flow dances forth. It illustrates the sylvan manuscript, the fingerprints of life’s divine architects as it carves its way down serpentine rivers to the sea.

With such a vision in mind you may understand my reaction to the news that Nestlé is planning on claiming perpetual water rights in Oxbow Springs, a State-owned resource, for the questionable benefit of the citizens of Cascade Locks. This operation comes without substantial public action or notice, and proceeds through a sustained complex of bureaucratic maneuvers involving a cross-transfer of municipal well water for far more valuable spring water.

…as a human being you should have the right to water. That’s an extreme solution. – Peter Brabeck, Nestlé

Over 100 million gallons of water per year from an area of basalt aquifers similar to the place I described are the prize of this long pursuit by Nestlé. In fact, they are part of the same volcanic formation, a few miles away. Many younger Oregonians I have talked to don’t seem to know much about it. It doesn’t seem to be well covered by the news or a pressing concern for social media users. One exception is Oregonian journalist Kelly House, writing once on the new approach being taken by the City of Cascade Locks to fast-track decisions being made in regard to state-owned water, and again covering the recent protest against the impending decision. 

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to trade state-owned pure spring water from Oxbow springs for city-owned municipal well water. The City of Cascade Locks plans to pass on these rights to Nestlé, who will own them in perpetuity, and sell the water extracted for hundreds of times what they purchased it for. This is supposedly for the benefit of the City of Cascade Locks, who support the deal being desperate for the jobs the bottling plant would bring to the region. 

The rights transfer has the effect of curtailing public comment and oversight and keeps decision-making largely between the city and Nestlé. The plant would be established within the city, straining the water and transportation infrastructure, requiring millions of dollars of upgrades. The deal as it stands would extend that cost to local and regional taxpayers. Despite paying into the project with their tax dollars, the citizens’ right to the water supply would essentially vanquish, belonging solely to Nestlé, in perpetuity. 

In order to evaluate the wisdom of this maneuver, perhaps we should ask Luke, a young activist who delivered over 130,000 signatures protesting a 45 year contract proposed with the City of Fryeburg, Maine on June 12, 2013.

Nestlé has sued Luke’s city five times in regards to legal injunctions against their unwanted activities. Not only that, it seems as if this contract for state-owned water is being made in perpetuity, and with very little attempt at public comment or oversight.  It is reasonable to assume that they are seeking to avoid it, and that is the duplicate aim of Cascade Locks City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman, as he was quoted by the Oregonian, saying that a fast-track would “narrow the scope of public opposition.”

Should someone holding the views expressed in the quote which opens this article really be someone Oregonians trust to steward precious state-owned resources? Nestlé is well-known as a bad actor in the communities where they’ve set up shop. The drought crisis in California, for example, has not deterred the corporation from bottling water for highway drivers to suck down at a cost of one hundred times that of filling up from the tap. 

The basalt spring water in question, which Nestlé is solely interested in pursuing, is the property of the residents of the State of Oregon, not of the City of Cascade Locks. A trade deal doesn’t change that, but it works around it. What happens to that water is the business of every voter within the state; all citizens of this state are the stewards of that water. If this deal was a good one for Oregon, then why the need to “narrow the scope,” and engage in this kind of obfuscation? 

Nestle bottling facility and its river of someone else's water.
Nestle bottling facility and its river of someone else’s water.

That water is currently used by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for a salmon hatchery and public officials repeatedly state the concerns they have for recovering salmon populations, which depend on free-flowing clean, clear water streams. I’m afraid I’m far more concerned for the future of the salmon runs and the greater economic benefits there, than I am for what will likely pan out to be a scant handful of permanent jobs for the City of Cascade Locks. 

The biggest winner in this trade deal are Nestlé shareholders. We can look to numerous instances in California, Michigan, Maine, and elsewhere to clearly see that Nestlé has a poor record as the steward to spring water in all those places.

Another person who has been curiously quiet is our new Governor Kate Brown, who at any moment could direct the OWRD to reject the application. Our new Governor spoke for several minutes in her first State of the State address about her concerns about water, the counties experiencing drought this summer, and the need for conservation. Her silence on this issue must be broken before it is too late. All of our silences should break. It’s our water.

On Saturday, citizens in Portland will have an opportunity to make our voices heard. The preliminary public comment period will end on May 14th, and on Saturday, Representative Bob Nosse will be holding a town hall SEIU Local 49 between 11 am-1 pm.  You can also submit your comment directly to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

When: Saturday, May 9th
Time: 11am-1pm
Where: SEIU Local 49, 3536 SE 26th Ave, Portland, OR 97202 

Todd Dickerson

By Todd Dickerson

D. Todd Dickerson is an unpaid librarian, event planner, anthropologist, noise musician, and psychogeographer in Portland Or. He believes art and fashion should be harnessed as sorcerous technology for the advancement of humanity.

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