CASCADE LOCKS – Klairice Westley stoops at the edge of a spring in the woods above the Oxbow Fish Hatchery.
"Want to get a drink?" she asks.
She dips a cupped hand into the pool of water and takes a sip.
"Oh, that's good water,"she says. "That's the best."
Westley lives nearby in Cascade Locks and also belongs to the Grand Ronde and Warm Springs tribes. She says drinking from Oxbow Springs is more than a tradition among tribal members – it’s a religious rite.
"This spring is specifically an integral part of our spiritual practices," she says. "This area right here."
The spring is also an integral part of Nestlé’s plans to build a $50 million water bottling plant in the town of Cascade Locks.
For years, Nestlé has been working with the city of Cascade Locks and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – which owns the Oxbow Hatchery – to swap some of their water rights so the company can bottle and sell millions of gallons of spring water under its Arrowhead brand.
Westley says that plan would violate tribal treaties and religious freedom laws.
"The first thing I thought is how sacred this area is, this water," she said. "We can’t allow this desecration."
Nestlé faces widespread criticism for its tactics in profiting from limited water resources. Opponents of the Nestlé project cite tribal treaty rights, drought concerns and a lack of trust in the company as key reasons for putting a measure on this month's ballot that would allow voters in Hood River County to ban commercial water bottling and block Nestlé from selling their local water.
Nestlé's supporters, on the other hand, say the company's bottling plant in Cascade Locks would offer a much-needed economic boost for the town while using a small fraction of the abundant water resources in the area.
Meeting Demand For Bottled Water
David Palais, natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America, says his company is filling a growing demand for bottled water in the Northwest.
“We have an epidemic in this country of obesity," he said. "Bottled water is the only choice in the packaged beverage categories that has no calories, no artificial colors, flavors, and people are choosing healthier beverages to consume."
Nestlé's plant in Cascade Locks would bottle 100 million gallons of water a year at full build-out; it would use the city's municipal groundwater for its Pure Life brand of bottled water and the Oxbow Springs water for its Arrowhead brand.
There is a limit to how much water the company will be able to bottle from Oxbow Springs, Palais said, and the company will monitor the water flows to make sure its not over-utilizing the resource.
He says having a plant in Cascade Locks will mean Nestlé won't have to truck bottled water from California and British Columbia.
"So we do feel there is a place for it," he said. "I drink tap water and I drink bottled water. I like to have the choice.”
A Choice For Voters
But now local voters have a choice, too.
At a recent rally in Hood River, opponents of the Nestlé project offered free tap water to passersby and chanted their support for the countywide ballot measure that would ban commercial water bottling.
Cascade Locks resident Aurora del Val held up a glass of water and toasted the May 17 election.
"This is water that came from our tap and we need to keep it that way," she said. "Don’t stick it in those cheap plastic bottles."
Del Val and other opponents say they're worried Nestlé will abuse their local water resources, and they want to be sure water will be available for the many local farms and other businesses.
"We want water to water the orchards. We want water to be available for the fish," del Val said. "It's really about water security."
A drought declaration in the county last summer only heightened their concerns about letting Nestlé in.
"We're concerned about the terrible track record of Nestlé in other states around the country," she said. "In Maine, in Michigan, they go into communities and they pump the water dry, and we want to make sure we don't have an irresponsible company like Nestlé coming in to begin with."
But other Cascade Locks residents see the Nestlé project very differently. Brad Lorang runs a gallery and makes his own metal art. As a former Cascade Locks mayor and current port commissioner, he sees the Nestlé project as chance to rebuild a town that’s withering away.
He says Nestlé will actually be buying water from the city, and that will generate much-needed revenue.
"You know there's been some rumors out there that Nestlé is going to somehow steal the water," he said. "They're going to be a water customer like any other industrial water user."
Lorang says revenue from Nestlé's water sales is estimated to be around $350,000 a year. That will go a long way toward helping the city repay a $3.7 million federal loan needed to fix water pipes that are leaking nearly as much water as they're delivering.
"It essentially doubles our revenue for our infrastructure," he said.
Over the years, he said, local jobs disappeared and enrollment in the locals schools dropped. Eventually, they closed the local high school and started busing students elsewhere.
"It was a large impact because our highs school was kind of the center of our community," he said. "It really connected our community. We don’t know our kids anymore."
It's hard to attract new families and new industries, he says. But the Nestlé project could help change that. The company has promised up to 50 new jobs. Plus, Lorang says, the town has tons of water. Even last year in a drought, it got 72 inches of rain. The city only uses about 10 percent of its current water right and Nestlé would use about another 10 percent. That means about 80 percent of the city's water right will remain unused.
“We’re selling a resource that we have in abundance both because we have a very large amount of rainfall and we have ... very little demand on our system because we have no other industry," he said.
Water exchange approval still needed
Lorang and all but one Cascade Locks city councilor are hoping to defeat the local ballot measure. But even if they do the Nestlé project still needs state approval on a water rights transfer.
In order for Nestlé to buy and sell the spring water, the state needs to approve a water rights exchange between the city of Cascade Locks and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"The idea for this plant is the city will gain access to the water in Oxbow Springs," Palais said. "In exchange, the hatchery will get access to some of the city's municipal water."
The proposed exchange will allow the city to access up to 225 gallons per minute from Oxbow Springs to sell to Nestlé. That's just about 5 percent of the state's water right to the springs, but during dry months it represents about a third of the springs' total flow. The city would replace that water from its municipal source and allow the hatchery to access more water than it would ordinarily have during dry months.
The state process for approving a water transfer has been bogged down by challenges from opponents. Then, late last year, Gov. Kate Brown weighed in on the matter and advocated for a longer approval process.
That process that will be open to public comment and certainly more public debate.