Oregonian: Activists ramp up opposition to a plan for a Nestle Waters bottling plant in Columbia River Gorge

By Scott Learn
The Oregonian


Activists are filing appeals and pressuring Gov. John Kitzhaber to scotch a proposed Nestlé Waters bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge.

The Cascade Locks plant, first proposed in 2009, would tap nearly 100 million gallons a year of Oregon spring water.

Cascade Locks officials say the plant would be a boon to the town 45 miles east of Portland, adding roughly 50 permanent jobs, doubling the property tax base and filling 25 acres of underused industrial land along the Columbia River. Opponents decry allowing an international company to profit by pumping a public resource into plastic bottles.

The activists, led by Nestlé-nemesis Food & Water Watch, said Tuesday they will appeal recent decisions by the state's Water Resources Department in an attempt to thwart construction of the $50 million plant.

It would be Nestlé's first in the region after towns in Washington and Northern California rebuffed the company. Nestlé would draw city well water and spring water now used by a nearby Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife salmon hatchery.

Opponents want Kitzhaber to stop Nestlé by directing ODFW not to exchange its rights to the spring with the city, necessary to get the spring water to the plant.

"The ultimate solution to keeping Nestlé out of the gorge lies with Governor Kitzhaber," said Julia DeGraw, Northwest organizer for Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch.

Kitzhaber spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki said Kitzhaber hasn't taken a position on the plant and "has not given direction (to state agencies) at this time."

Lance Masters, Cascade Locks' mayor, criticized the involvement of "special interest groups, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., trying to influence what happens in our little town.

"In their attempt to stop Nestlé, they could be dealing a death blow to a town that's really struggling for survival," Masters said.

Nestlé would draw water from the spring and city wells to fill bottles of Arrowhead and Pure Life water, running a pipe to ODFW's Oxbow Hatchery about a mile away. The plant would use 225 gallons per minute of the spring water; at its lowest point, in October, the spring runs about 600 gallons a minute, the state says.

The hatchery would replace the spring water with water from Cascade Locks' wells, which city officials argue have ample capacity. ODFW says the move would allow the hatchery to use more water in the summer and fall, when the spring is at its low point. Nestlé would use another 75 gallons per minute of well water.

Opponents have coalesced as the Keep Nestlé Out of the Gorge Coalition, including groups such as the Mount Hood forest group Bark, Oregon AFSCME, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Sierra Club.

State Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, said she and perhaps a dozen other legislators will ask the Democratic governor to reject exchanging a state-owned water right.

"It allows a private multinational corporation to use a public resource for the economically and environmentally unsustainable practice of bottled water," said Dingfelder, chairwoman of the Senate's natural resources and environment committee.

Under state law, she said, there's no requirement for a thorough review of the plant's potential environmental consequences, from water drawdowns to increased truck traffic.

Opponents say Nestlé's checkered history in other communities -- and a likely 50-year operating agreement with Cascade Locks -- indicate the city and the hatchery would have little recourse if water runs short.

Nestlé and Cascade Locks officials say the company should be treated like any other industry. Masters, the mayor, noted that smaller-scale water bottling plants are already established in the gorge, including Water from the Hood in Hood River and H2Oregon in The Dalles.

Dave Palais, a natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters, said the company has redesigned bottles to use less plastic and is increasing its use of recycled plastic. Nestlé stresses that zero-calorie bottled water is a healthy alternative to sodas and other high-calorie bottled drinks.

The company planned on a lengthy approval process, Palais said. It's also looking at several privately held springs from the Portland area to The Dalles -- Palais said he couldn't disclose specifics -- that could serve as a backup for the Cascade Locks plant or an alternative if the plant doesn't go forward.

Food & Water Watch's appeal focuses on two preliminary decisions in February from the Water Resources Department. The decisions endorsed initial transfer applications from ODFW that would tee up a subsequent exchange with Cascade Locks, which will also require department approval.

Opponents argue that the department needs to take the intended use of the water into account, along with the public's interest in controlling its water supply.

But Dwight French, the department's water rights administrator, said state law doesn't allow the department to consider what Cascade Locks chooses to do with its water.

"We don't put limitations on what businesses they can attract or sell water to," French said.

In the coming months, the appeal will go before an administrative law judge for review. The water rights exchange can't be considered until the transfers are approved.