Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 5, 2016
HOOD RIVER, Ore. (KOIN) — Nestle’s controversial plan to establish a water bottling plant in Cascade Locks has divided the community and sparked contentious debates among those worried about the environment and others working to boost the local economy.
On May 17, Hood River County residents will vote on a ballot measure that would ban all commercial water bottling operations in the region.
If voters pass ballot measure 14-55, Nestle’s years-long battle to export 118 million gallons of water a year from Oxbow Springs could finally come to an end.
“The measure is a way to set the precedent that Hood River County values our water,” activist group the Local Water Alliance’s website states. “We will not sell it off to water exporters wishing to profit at the expense of our water security and future.”
Nestle has denounced the measure for singling out corporate water bottlers.
“Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) is pleased that the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), of which we are a member, is actively opposing Measure 14-55 as it arbitrarily singles out the bottled water industry. As this is a measure to ban our proposed business in Hood River County, we should naturally be engaged in the debate.” – Dave Palais, NWNA Natural Resource Manager
The Cascade Locks City Council recently voted 6-1 to adopt a resolution that explicitly opposes the water protection measure, an overwhelming vote in favor of Nestle.
Cascade Locks Mayor Tom Cramblett tells KOIN 6 News, when it comes to Nestle’s plan, “the pros outweigh the cons by a long shot.”
“Everything comes down to trying to get jobs for people,” Mayor Cramblett said. “We got a great opportunity for good, full-time paying jobs with benefits, with retirement, with everything that goes along with that.”
City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman agrees.
“Nestle would be good for the city in increased tax base, increased employment, and increased utility revenues as stated in the resolution,” Zimmerman said via email.
Local Water Alliance Campaign Director Aurora del Val and other local activists have been fighting to protect the region’s water supply for years.
Del Val says she understands the need for economic development in Cascade Locks, but calls Nestle’s project “a shortsighted pursuit of a small number of jobs.”
“We’ve done our research and we know that the kind of jobs Nestle would be providing would be low-paying,” she said. “I don’t buy the promises… from Nestle.”
Around 50 new jobs would reportedly be created if Nestle gets the green light, however, the company hasn’t confirmed whether those jobs would go to locals.
Zimmerman says the city can’t require Nestle to hire Cascade Locks residents.
Research also shows Nestle’s manufacturing facilities will likely continue to automate production processes in an effort to maximize profits and reduce costs.
Opponents say that means it’s unlikely 50 locals will be hired full-time.
As of December 2015, Cascade Locks experienced 18.8% unemployment.
While city leaders tout Nestle’s plan as a way to decrease that rate, they also acknowledge a growing number of new businesses and a recent boom in tourism.
“For the first time in years, the City is attracting the attention of potential manufacturing interests. Bear Mountain Wood Products is expanding. A new value added agricultural industry is coming to town. A local family is working on a fish processing plant.” – City of Cascade Locks
It’s those local businesses del Val says the city should be working to expand.
“People are hiring, actually, at the brewery right here,” del Val said. “I want to make sure we have the kinds of companies that share [our] kinds of values… We don’t want a corporation that’s based in Switzerland and really could care less.”
Aside from creating jobs, the city has acknowledged numerous reasons for pursuing the opportunity, including a property tax base increase and corporate help in the event of a natural disaster.
But anti-Nestle advocates say those things won’t make up for the 118 million gallons of water the company wants to export out of Oxbow Springs every year.
“It is intrinsically a desecration to sell that water,” Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ Anna Mae Leonard said. “It is specific to our spiritual, cultural practices.”
Just last summer, Governor Kate Brown declared drought emergencies in 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties, the most since 1992. Cascade Locks residents even received notices to conserve water in their summer utility bills.
Lingering concerns brought on by the drought have been alleviated somewhat thanks to El Niño and a much wetter-than-normal fall and winter. The city already received 78.35 inches of rain this water year, an inch higher than the annual average.
City leaders say they aren’t worried about running out of water anytime soon.
“If [Nestlé’s] bottling plant was running at full production 24 hours a day for an entire year, the plant would bottle almost 118 million gallons of water. That sounds like a lot, but looking at the Columbia River, that amount of water flows by Cascade Locks every 1.4 minutes.” – City of Cascade Locks
Despite elevated rain levels this water year, del Val says local tributaries were visibly drier last summer. She and others with the Local Water Alliance believe fresh water will become scarce as the effects of climate change are felt around the globe.
“In Oregon there’s always been, it seems like, an abundance of water. But it’s really been changing… We know it’s been happening for years, that there’s been a change of the weather pattern,” Local Water Alliance Founder Pamela Larsen told The Story of Stuff Project. “Fresh, clean water is… the most precious thing on the planet.”
At the end of the day, activists working to stop Nestle’s plan say their primary goal is to protect the water supply for local farmers, orchardists, families, salmon and — above all else — future generations.
“Hood River County’s economy is directly linked to water, whether it’s our farms and orchards or river recreation,” del Val said via email. “It’s very important we have control over the future of our water supply and we can’t have that control if we let Nestle or any other corporation truck our water out of the county.”
Del Val says she’s worried Nestle will exploit other water sources in Oregon if given access to Oxbow Springs. It’s something she says the company is already doing.
“At other plants, [Nestle] will travel up to 100-120 miles for other water sources, bring it back to their plant, bottle it up in plastic and ship it out,” she said.
Nestle’s controversial history in California also doesn’t sit well with everyone.
An investigative piece by The Desert Sun revealed Nestle pays only $524 a year to extract nearly 27 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino Mountains.
For over 2 decades, the corporate water bottling giant has been operating in the region under an expired permit with little federal oversight.
“The Forest Service hasn’t looked at [the region] in a number of years, so they can’t say ‘Yes, we’re protecting U.S. public resources. Yes, we’re making sure that there is sufficient water for all the species,” environmental attorney Rachel Doughty said.
“They’ve devastated communities around the country and around the world, and we don’t want that happening here.” – Aurora del Val
Nestle increased its water use in California by 19% during recent periods of extreme drought between 2011-2014, according to figures provided by the corporation.
In an interview with a hydrologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Nestle Waters North America CEO Tim Brown said he had no desire to move his company’s bottled water operations elsewhere as California dealt with a historic drought.
“Absolutely not,” Brown said. “In fact, if I could increase [bottling], I would.”
Retired U.S. Forest Service Ranger Gary Earney told The Story of Stuff Project the region’s water supply will only become more critical as the population grows.
“I care a great deal that public land in our country is properly managed, especially in a manner that makes sure that the goods and services it provides are there for future generations,” Earney said. “And that’s not how it’s being managed.”
If Oregon were to experience a severe drought in the future, many Cascade Locks residents say they’re not sure Nestle would act responsibly to conserve resources.
“This corporation has a history of seeking out desperate communities,” del Val said. “I seriously doubt that Nestle or any other large-scale water bottling corporation would stop pumping our water even as water sources continue to shrink.”
Ultimately, it will be up to voters to decide Nestle’s fate in Cascade Locks.
Ballots must be submitted by May 17.