SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Opponents of Nestlé’s proposed water bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge have turned in three times the number of signatures required to qualify a local ballot measure blocking the deal.
The citizen measure is being watched around the country, as other communities ponder whether publicly owned water should be given or sold to for-profit corporations, said Julia DeGraw, Northwest organizer for Food & Water Watch.
The measure would prohibit any bottled water exports from Hood River County. The Local Water Alliance, which is leading the campaign, believes it’s the first measure of its kind nationwide.
The deal to build a bottling plant in economically depressed Cascade Locks has been in the works for more than six years. It centers on state-owned water rights at nearby Oxbow Springs.
Cascade Locks had proposed trading its city well water gallon-for-gallon with the state’s Oxbow Springs water, then planned to sell the spring water to Nestlé. The plan faced an extensive review to determine whether it served the public interest.
In April 2015, the city and state decided to pursue a new agreement that would permanently trade water rights instead of just water, eliminating the need for a public interest review.
The decision drew complaints, protests and a formal letter from nine legislators urging Gov. Kate Brown to intervene.
Last month, Brown ordered the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to withdraw its cross transfer application and return to the original water exchange process, which will require a public-interest review.
Nestlé officials said they were disappointed with the decision.
“This will likely further delay much needed economic development in Cascade Locks that our project would bring,” said Dave Palais, natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America.
The plant is expected to provide about 50 jobs. The company also is asking for tax breaks.
The plant’s opponents say it doesn’t make sense to send 200 million gallons a year out of a county that has been in a serious drought.
“This project would set a dangerous precedent that Hood River County is a county willing to give away the future of our water security,” said Aurora del Val, campaign director for the Local Water Alliance. “That precedent puts at risk our entire economy, which heavily relies on water, and it is not worth the small number of jobs Nestlé could create at a highly automated bottling plant.”
Nestlé sells 64 brands of water in 43 countries. It taps 50 springs across the United States, but doesn’t have a source of spring water in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, it trucks bottled water here from Sacramento.