Nestle critics fight bottled water with ballot initiative

TRAFFIC MOVES through Cascade Locks. A group filed a ballot measure to prevent Nestle from selling water from the spring in Cascade Locks.

A group of Hood River County residents want voters to decide whether the Nestle Corporation should be allowed to bottle and sell water from the Columbia River Gorge.

The group this month filed a ballot initiative that would ban commercial operations bottling more than 1,000 gallons a day in the county, where Nestle for years has pursued the prospect of bottling water from a spring in the hills near Cascade Locks.

The Cascade Locks City Council has approved Nestle’s plan to build a $50 million bottling plant in town, but first the city must obtain the state’s permission to access the spring water and sell it to Nestle.

That process is underway.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has sole access to the spring, has agreed to trade a portion of its water right to Cascade Locks in exchange for an equal portion of the city’s municipal supply.

Cascade Locks would then sell the spring water to Nestle at a discount from the $2.25 per 1,000 gallons rate city residents pay for their tap water.

The swap can only happen with the Oregon Water Resources Department’s approval. The agency is expected to release its preliminary decision in the near future.

Nestle’s supporters laud the plant as an economic development opportunity for the cash-strapped town and a job opportunity for its residents, nearly 19 percent of whom are unemployed.

“This is an economic development question,” said Gordon Zimmerman, city manager for the community of fewer than 1,200. “We could use the jobs, the increased tax base and the utility revenues.”

Opponents argue selling water to Nestle amounts to privatization of a public resource. They question whether it’s a wise move given the ongoing drought gripping most of Oregon.

For most of the nearly seven years since Nestle first announced plans to set up shop in Cascade Locks, a contingent of environmental and public health groups have led the opposition.

Recently, though, a groundswell of local opposition has emerged in response to the state and Cascade Locks’ pursuit of a new strategy that cuts the question of public interest out of the debate over Oxbow Springs.

A group known as the Local Water Alliance has staged rallies, sent letters to the governor and quizzed city officials about how they plan to protect the city’s water security while Nestle bottles 100 million gallons annually from the local watershed.

They’ve gained allies in the tribes.

Leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs questioned the deal in a letter to Kate Brown, and tribe members have staged rallies and a hunger strike in protest.

Pleas to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have “fallen upon deaf ears,” said Aurora de Val, a spokeswoman for the local opposition group.

“We tried to speak to her about it, and her response was to keep fighting,” de Val said. “She’s washing her hands of responsibility.”

The idea of stopping Nestle through state-level action seems increasingly far-fetched, de Val said.

Enter the “Hood River Water Protection Measure.” Sponsors of the county ballot initiative need signatures from 664 county residents to get it on the ballot.

Through a spokeswoman, Nestle representative Dave Palais said company officials are reviewing the petition.

Palais argued bottled water bans eliminate healthy drink choices for consumers.

At a time area farmers are receiving federal assistant to help cope with water shortages, the idea of exporting water seems “foolish,” said de Val, who added she expects a “pretty nasty fight” from Nestle.

Zimmerman countered that Cascade Locks’ ample rainfall makes it immune to many of the water problems..

It’s unclear whether the initiative, if passed, would impact Hood River County’s existing small-scale water bottler, Water from the Hood.

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