Oregonian: Gov. Kate Brown asks for new approach to Nestle water deal

by Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive


Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has asked the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to abandon its current strategy to enable Nestle bottled water plant in Cascade Locks in favor of an approach that allows more public input.

Brown on Friday sent a letter to department director Curt Melcher, asking him withdraw the agency's application to trade part of the department's water right at Oxbow Springs with the city of Cascade Locks.

If the Oregon Water Resources Department allows the trade, Cascade Locks plans to sell the spring water to the Nestle corporation, which would bottle and sell it under the Arrowhead Springs brand.

The proposed water rights swap represented a departure from the strategy city and state officials had previously pursued, in which they would maintain their respective water rights and trade the water itself, drop-for-drop.

Nestle officials, arguing the previous strategy was taking too long, suggested the new strategy as a way to speed up the application process. But the new strategy also eliminated state water managers' obligation to consider the public interest when deciding whether or not to allow the trade.

Brown's spokeswoman, Kristen Grainger, said Friday the governor's push to foster transparency in state government and her concerns about Oregon's ongoing drought spurred her to make Friday's request.

"She thinks it's really important that proposals that affect the publicly-held water right be subject to the review process that offers the greatest opportunity for public involvement," Grainger said.

The governor also sent a letter to the Oregon Water Resources Commission, asking its members to take up the broader issue of how the state considers requests to relinquish state-held water rights.

David Palais, a spokesman for Nestle, expressed disappointment about Brown's request, saying it will "further delay much-needed economic development in Cascade Locks." 

Palais said company representatives will sit down with Cascade Locks city and port officials to "evaluate the impacts" of Brown's letter.

Opponents of the Nestle deal called Brown's letters a step in the right direction, but said they still hope to see the her take a formal stance on whether Nestle should set up shop in Cascade Locks

"It's heartening to see the governor at least require a higher level of review of this," said Julia DeGraw, a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch, "but ultimately we'd still like to see her come out in opposition."

The proposed Nestle proposal has fueled controversy since the company first announced its desire to build a $50 million bottling plant in the small Columbia River Gorge town, but the company's critics seemed to multiply in recent months.

Leadership from both the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation both approached Brown with concerns about the state's approach to the deal, and a local group launched a ball gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would block large water bottlers from operating in Hood River County.

Brown had previously maintained that the Nestle debate is a local issue. Grainger said the governor still believes local officials should decide whether to welcome the plant, but decisions regarding the use of state water should allow opportunity for the public to weigh in.

This story will be updated.

-- Kelly House