Like California, Oregon is facing its worst drought in 300 years. It’s in this context that Swiss giant Nestlé wants to move into a small, economically depressed town and tap local spring water for a bottled water plant.

This photo shows the view overlooking Cascade Locks, Oregon. (Photo from Facebook/Instagram)

Cascade Locks is a picturesque town perched on the banks of the Columbia River in western Oregon, an area so beautiful it has been classified as a National Scenic Area since 1986. Life is not so rosy, however, for the town’s roughly 1,200 inhabitants, who face poverty and an 18.8% unemployment rate, according to the local port authority.

Nestlé Waters North America has been trying to set up a water bottling plant in Cascade Locks for the past six years. In 2009, it opened a small office there. Six months ago, Nestlé signed an option-to-purchase agreement that gives the company first dibs on a plot of land in the town’s industrial park. Nestlé hasn’t bought yet, however, because it’s waiting to gain access to valuable spring water from nearby Oxbow Springs.

Up until this year, the rights to Oxbow Springs water belonged to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), who use it for a local salmon hatchery. On April 10, however, Cascade Locks and the ODFW filed for a permanent transfer of water rights. If Cascade Locks gains the rights to spring water, city hall plans to sell it to Nestlé. They say the Nestlé bottling operation would bring both tax dollars and jobs to the town.

The transfer deal, however, sidesteps a public interest review, despite the fact that Nestlé would extract water, unlike the ODFW hatchery, which lets the water run back into the Columbia River system . Moreover, Nestlé would bypass city pipes and build its own pipes to the source of the spring. This has environmental activists, legislators and citizens increasingly alarmed.

Photo: Food & Water Watch Oregon Facebook page


Opponents say this sets a dangerous precedent of privatizing public natural resources, especially when 15 Oregon counties have already declared drought emergencies.

More than 7,000 people submitted comments opposing the deal to the Oregon State Capitol in early May. A petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures. Nine legislators sent a letter to the governor, asking her to block the transfer.

“Oregon counties face drought emergencies, climate change is bearing down on us and wealthy investors are looking to divert water from the Northwest to California,” said Oregon Representative Ann Lininger in a press statement. “This is not the time to help a private multinational corporation extract and sell our precious clean water.”

"Selling public resources for private profit is an idea that belongs in the past"


City Councilor Deanna Busdieker does not think that a Nestlé plant will help build a future for Cascade Locks. She prefers other options.

Nestlé’s main concern is its profit margin, whereas residents want sustainable, socially responsible long-term economic development. We have other options. There are two manufacturers in active talks to purchase land other than Nestlé: a fish processing plant owned by local entrepreneurs [which would bring seven or eight jobs] and The Puff Factory, which would support local fruit growers [and would bring about 30 jobs].

Selling public resources for private profit is an idea that belongs in the past. The only way to move forward is to develop new industries. We can do better than Nestlé.

“No other water bottlers in Oregon access public water in that way”

For city officials, there is no drought in Cascade Falls because “it rains 80 inches a year here”.

Julia DeGraw is Senior Northwest Organiser at Food & Water Watch Oregon. She said that it's decreased snowfall, not rainfall, that could affect Cascade Locks’ water resources.
 
Regardless of the amount of rain Cascade Locks or any part of Oregon gets, we are having what they call snow pack droughts [Editor’s note: Currently, the snow is at 7 to 11% of normal rates due to warmer winters]. The spring water that Nestle wants to bottle comes from snow melt on Mt. Hood. Nestle isn’t bottling rain, nor is Cascade Locks using rain water for drinking water.
 

Moreover, Cascade Locks’ closest neighbour, Wasco County, has a drought emergency and could face water shortages.
 
The point raised DeGraw and other activists is that the transfer is permanent. This means that in the event of any water reduction situation—be it a drought or a contamination of the city’s groundwater from the Columbia, there would be no recourse to regain access to the water transferred in the deal.
 
“Even potential supports of Nestle want answers”
 
Every public meeting, hosted by Nestlé, that I attended in Cascade Locks included a majority of residents who have major concerns about Nestlé’s water bottling proposal. People are concerned about truck trips through town [Editor’s note: Up to 200 truck-trips a day would pass through the town if the Nestlé plant opened, according to Oregon Sierra Club], the eyesore of massive water storage towers, the potential noise [which could adversely affect tourism] and about what happens if there’s a water shortage.
 

People in town are starting to speak out. A number of residents held signs opposing Nestlé just outside a [Nestlé-sponsored] community picnic two weeks ago.


Since we launched our campaign six years ago, we’ve organized events, speakers, rallies and even an ultra-run to raise awareness. We’ve also used every tool to legally fight this proposal— one of the reasons it hasn’t moved forward yet.
 

Still, we need leadership from the top: Governor Kate Brown shouldn’t allow a state agency [ODFW] to set the dangerous precedent of making Oregon public water available for Nestlé’s profit, especially during a drought. No other water bottlers in Oregon access public water in that way.
 
When contacted by FRANCE 24, Byron Maye, speaking on behalf of Nestlé Waters North America, denied that bottling water was an “extractive industry”. He said: 

Nestlé would not have water rights… we will be an industrial customer of a municipal water provider … subject to the same rules and requirements as other users, including water-use restrictions issued by the City to all customers during times of drought. We are also concerned about drought and how it affects families, farmers, consumers and businesses. We are committed to managing the resources that supply water to us effectively to ensure long-term sustainability.  We support open public dialogue… and we have worked transparently with the community and other stakeholders, local government and the regulatory agencies throughout each step of this proposed sitting plan.
 
The Water Resources Department is expected to come out with a preliminary determination on the transfer this summer. If it is approved, DeGraw said the coalition of groups opposed to the water bottling plant would contest the decision. 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)