Last May, it looked like voters had stopped the Nestle corporation from putting a water-bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge. But four months later, activists are raising concerns the project could still happen.
Opponents gathered at the Oregon State Capitol on Wednesday, joining a Native American activist who has spent the week there fasting, in protest. The target of their ire: what they see as continued efforts to bring a water bottling plant to Cascade Locks, an Oregon city in the Columbia River Gorge.
“They want people to have faith in the voting system, and yet the people have voted and they’re still moving forward with the Nestle proposal,” Anna Mae Leonard, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said. She has been fasting since Monday, reprising the same form of protest she took to last year in Cascade Locks to protest the plans by Nestle.
Those plans appeared to be derailed in May, when two-thirds of Hood River County voters passed a ballot measure prohibiting commercial water-bottling operations countywide.
But a continuing effort to get state approval for an exchange of water between Cascade Locks and the Oregon Department Fish and Wildlife is renewing opposition. That proposal would allow Cascade Locks to start drawing water from Oxbow Springs — spring water that Nestle was interested in for its proposed bottling plant.
That would require approval from the Oregon Water Resources Department for a water exchange between the city and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It would provide water from Oxbow Springs in return for water from city wells.
The exchange would give the department a reliable backup supply of water for a nearby fish hatchery during the late summer and fall, ODFW spokesman Rick Swart said. He said the agency's interest in the water exchange has nothing to do with the Nestle plant proposal.
Nestle plant opponent Julie DeGraw from Food & Water Watch questioned whether the water exchange is separate from the water-bottling proposal. She said the water exchange application stipulates Nestle would pay for the infrastructure to send well water from Cascade Locks' municipal wells to the ODFW hatchery.
Currently, there are no negotiations with Nestle to bring in a water bottling facility, said Cascade Locks City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman.
“The city’s not going to do anything right now because we don’t have access to the water,” Zimmerman said. But he didn't dispute the water exchange could reopen the door.
Zimmerman expects the Oregon Water Resources Department to approve the water exchange application by the end of October. After that, other steps would have to happen for a Nestle plant to come back onto the table: The international corporation would have to agree to restart talks, Zimmerman said, and the city would have to go to court and successfully have the countywide water bottling measure overturned.
Although no such legal challenge has been launched, Zimmerman said there remains a desire in his city for bringing the plant and its economic benefits.
“The citizens of Cascade Locks voted against that ballot measure. They’re still interested in having that water bottling plant go forward and the city council is still interested in it,” he said.
Since the May vote in Hood River County, Nestle has shifted its attention to Waitsburg, Washington. The Swiss conglomerate’s water-bottling plant proposal has proven controversial in this southeastern Washington community 20 miles north of Walla Walla.