Crag is a non-profit law center and with your backing we provide legal support to protect Oregon’s precious water resources for future generations. The “we” here is you, our local communities and our clients who worked tirelessly to protect our precious water resources in the Gorge.  Some of you have followed this fight closely, others of you are perhaps less familiar.  Below you will find a detailed history of the fight…

Oxbow Springs by Blue Ackerman

In 2008, Nestlé showed up on Oregon’s doorstep with offers of jobs, economic growth and what they pitched as a great opportunity for the town of Cascade Locks and the State of Oregon. Cascade Locks would get jobs and an economic stimulus, both important factors to help small towns thrive. What did Nestlé want in return? The rights to build a tax deferred water bottling plant and pump 150 million gallons of water a year from a pristine water source in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Nestlé’s original overture was met with almost instant opposition and Oregonians have not stopped since.

Nestlé proposed to draw water from Oxbow Springs on state-owned land in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and then bottle the water in a new plant to be built in the City of Cascade Locks. Oxbow Springs are a network of natural springs in the Mt. Hood National Forest currently used by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for its Little Herman Creek fish hatchery operation. Nestlé would pipe the water away from its natural drainage straight to its facility, to be put in single-use plastic bottles which would be loaded onto diesel burning semi trucks and carried through the Gorge.

Nestlé has an entire business unit devoted to bottled water and has the deep pockets to play a long game to ensure cheap sources. Just to give a few facts – in 2015 Nestlé made a 10.8% profit margin on bottled water products, and their bottled water business contributed over 8% of Nestlé’s total sales – and to put absolute numbers on that, Nestlé took in over $7 billion from its water business in 2016.

On the other side of the issue, there are community members of the Local Water Alliance, and members of the Columbia River Tribes including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Yakama Nation, as well as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The local community opposition is supported by a number of environmental groups including Food & Water Watch, Bark, Sierra Club, and Environment Oregon, as well as many non-traditional allies including Oregon’s public employees union AFSCME, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Alliance for Democracy, and Sisters of the Holy Names.

The Early Days 

Upon learning the news of Nestlé’s attempted water grab, conservation and public interest groups formed the Keep Nestlé Out of Gorge Coalition to build awareness and opposition to the proposal. In 2010, at the request of Nestlé and the City of Cascade Locks, then-Governor Ted Kulongoski directed ODFW to initiate a water exchange with the City to trade 0.5 cubic feet per second (cfs) of Oxbow Springs water for municipal well-water. As part of this process, ODFW required certain changes to its water rights for the hatchery in order to actually exchange the spring water. ODFW filed two water rights transfer applications with the Oregon Water Resources Department seeking to split its water right and to move the point of diversion to Oxbow Springs. ODFW also filed a joint water exchange application with the City of Cascade Locks to trade the spring water.

The Keep Nestlé Out of the Gorge Coalition led a powerful campaign to generate public comments on the applications. The Water Resources Department received an unprecedented number of comments in opposition to the transfers and water exchange on the basis that it is not in the “public interest” – a legal standard by which the exchange would be evaluated. Nonetheless, in 2012, the Water Resources Department approved ODFW’s water transfer applications, which would make Oxbow Springs water available for the exchange.

On behalf of Bark and Food & Water Watch, Crag Law Center filed protests to the Water Resources Department’s decision to approve the transfer and challenged the legality of ODFW’s water rights. This led to a lengthy legal process, lasting nearly five years, during which time Nestlé’s plans could not move forward. As the protest proceedings unfolded, Oregon experienced the pressures of our changing climate and opposition to Nestlé’s water grab gained new momentum.

When in Drought…

Water resources are held by the state in trust for its citizens. In 2015, Oregon’s snowpack peaked at the lowest levels measured in the last 35 years. In May through July of that year, Oregon recorded the warmest average temperatures since 1895. Nearly the entire State of Oregon, including Hood River County has faced significant drought in recent years. And while you may think that the record rains of 2016-17 were enough to change that, think again. In September 2017, more than half of the State of Oregon faced abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions – including the Columbia River Gorge scenic area.

Concerned about the future of their community and our shared public water resources, a group of Hood River County residents formed the Local Water Alliance. In September 2015, the group filed a ballot measure petition––The Hood River County Water Protection Measure––with the goal of ensuring a long-term water supply their families, farms, and fish. Measure 14-55 would prohibit the commercial production of bottled water in Hood River County and make the transport of water resources for that purpose illegal.

Crag Law Center represented Local Water Alliance in getting the Measure certified for the ballot after the County election officials rejected the petition. Once certified for the ballot, the campaign to pass Measure 14-55 was on in full force. Over 100 local businesses and farmers endorsed the measure. In May 2016, the Measure passed by a landslide, with over 68% of Hood River County voters saying “NO” to Nestlé.

Watch the film on Measure 14-55 from the Story of Stuff Project.

Ignoring the Will of the People?

Despite the passage of Measure 14-55, the State of Oregon and the City of Cascade Locks continued to pursue the Oxbow Springs water exchange, making clear that they would ignore the will of Hood River County residents and the Measure to push the Nestlé proposal forward. In the wake of the May 2016 vote, coalition members and leaders of the Columbia River Tribes held a rally at the State Capitol to put pressure on Governor Kate Brown to withdraw from the water exchange deal. As recently as October 2017, the City of Cascade Locks signaled it might challenge Measure 14-55 in court and remained committed to seeing Nestlé’s plans come to fruition.

Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy and Anna Mae Leonard stand in front of the Oregon State Capitol. Photo by Blue Ackerman

Nestlé’s proposal not only threatens our precious water resources, but also means the increased manufacturing of wasteful plastic bottles. And based on its past practices in other communities, coalition members are reasonably concerned that Nestlé would not serve the rural communities’ best interests when bottling public water resources. If history is any guide, once Nestlé has established its plant, it will continue to seek additional water sources in the Gorge to add to its production line. Indeed, Nestlé has already attempted to get a foothold in communities in Washington.

Nestlé’s water bottling business has ignited many conflicts in the local communities where they locate, and the fights often go on for years. Sometimes communities are successful in keeping Nestlé out, but not always and not usually. Nestlé does not give up easily. Following the passage of Measure 14-55, they continued to maintain an office in Cascade Locks.

Victory at Last!

Finally, on October 27, 2017, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to withdraw the exchange application, effectively foreclosing Nestlé from gaining access to Oxbow Springs. In her letter to ODFW Director Curt Melcher, the Governor cited concerns over the uncertainty of Nestlé’s proposal in Cascade Locks in light of the passage of Measure 14-55 and the significant state resources that would be expended in seeing the project through to the end.

The Governor’s action was long-awaited and affirmed the message of nearly a decade of grassroots opposition: Nestlé’s water grab is not in the public interest. Shortly after the Governor’s directive and ODFW’s withdrawal of the exchange application, Nestlé packed up its things and closed down its office in Cascade Locks.

Crag, our clients, and the many individuals who have spent countless hours fighting to protect our public water resources are still pinching ourselves at the thought that we may have actually defeated Nestlé in the Gorge. Local Water Alliance and Crag Law Center will remain vigilant and ready to defend Measure 14-55 and the will of the voters against any challenge that may come. In the meantime, we will celebrate this great victory and channel the energy of this campaign towards protecting all of Oregon’s precious water resources from increasing threats.

Crag Law Center played a key role throughout the fight to keep Nestlé out of the Gorge. We work in the spirit of giving back, and if you are grateful for our work, please consider making a contribution to support our work.

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With your support we will continue to fight for our shared natural heritage.

This article was written with significant contribution from Lori Davidson.