Don't auction our gorge water

Two Views • Controversy has bottled up Nestle’s proposed plant in the Columbia River Gorge
By Julia DeGraw and Martin Donohoe

Christopher Onstott / Portland Tribune
There are few things more quintessentially Oregonian than the Columbia River Gorge.

A favorite spot for hiking, swimming and rafting in the warmth of summer, at this time of year, only hard-core winter sports enthusiasts will venture a toe near the pure, cold water that cascades down cliffs or the springs that bubble up from the ground.

That is, except for Nestlé Waters North America, which is looking to immerse itself fully in the cold water of the gorge this winter. Nestlé wants to build its first water bottling plant in the Northwest in the gorge town of Cascade Locks. Whether it will be allowed to do so is a decision that rests with Gov.-elect John Kitzhaber. He should oppose it.

In the months since Nestlé announced its plans, groups from across the state – including Bark, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club, Oregon Council Trout Unlimited and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility – and thousands of Oregonians have been fighting to defend gorge water and its scenic beauty from Switzerland’s Nestlé. A state record was set in October when over 4,600 Oregonians delivered public comments opposing Nestlé’s plan to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Nestlé would gain access to gorge water only through a series of complicated maneuvers at the state level involving both water resources department and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. These state agencies – with the governor’s blessing – would have to choose to give away Oregon’s water so that Nestlé can profit from it. If they did, the town of Cascade Locks would sell both spring water and its municipal water to Nestlé, which would bottle them under the Arrowhead and Nestlé Pure Life labels.

Oregon needs jobs, and the promise of employment at a Nestlé bottling plant is understandably attractive to local and state politicians. But in other communities, these promises have failed to deliver and have come with significant hidden costs. On average, water bottling facilities employ half as many of the 48 jobs Nestlé is promising to bring to Cascade Locks. In many communities where it operates, Nestlé has over-promised and under-delivered on jobs and has proven itself an irresponsible water steward.

Because Nestlé is a multinational company, it is not accountable to local residents, making it difficult or impossible for the communities to fix the problems Nestlé creates. The company repeatedly refused to reduce or cease pumping water at facilities in Maine and Michigan, even after its extraction activities depleted water levels, in some cases drying up the springs of local landowners. In McCloud, Calif., Nestlé even tried to include a stipulation in its contract that its water needs should take precedence over the local community in the event of a drought. There, the community won a five-year battle to keep Nestlé from bottling its water.

In Mecosta County, Mich., it took 10 years for the community to win a court case just to limit the amount of water Nestlé could pump. Although it had claimed it would stop pumping if there were adverse impacts to local water levels, Nestlé took the citizens of Mecosta County to court to defend its water extraction, even as springs were turning into mud flats.

If Nestlé were allowed to set up shop in Cascade Locks, it would likely tap into other springs in the gorge to expand its Northwest operation. For example, it ships water from multiple spring locations to its water bottling facility in Colorado. This means that there could be unforeseen impacts to water resources throughout the gorge, not just in Cascade Locks.

These experiences, combined with other well-documented impacts of water bottling operations, illustrate that a partnership with Nestlé is not something Oregon’s public officials should pursue.

Responsible management of the state’s water resources means considering the impact this facility could have on the long-term sustainability of the local drinking water supply; the impacts to our salmon and steelhead fisheries of taking gorge spring water, on which these wild fish depend; and the potential impact to the scenic beauty and tourism in the gorge of a large bottling facility and its heavy truck traffic.

Gov.-elect Kitzhaber should make appointments to water resources department and the fish and wildlife department who will preserve Oregon’s water for Oregonians and the greater public good, and should advise both agencies not to approve Nestlé’s plan.

Julia DeGraw is the Northwest organizer for Food & Water Watch. Martin Donohoe, MD, is a member of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.