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Bottled water wars: Nestle's latest move in Cascade Locks sparks outcry from opponents
Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Kelly House on January 23, 2015 at 5:00 AM, updated January 23, 2015 at 1:00 PM
The water that gushes from Oxbow Springs is undeniably pristine, but no more so than the stuff that pours from Cascade Locks residents’ taps.
Chemically speaking, they’re the exact same thing.
Yet, Nestlé -- a Swiss multinational corporation -- is willing to invest years of time and large sums of money to obtain the former. If the company wins the right to bottle Oxbow Springs water, it stands to make more money than by bottling tap water alone.
“They capitalize on the perception that spring water is healthier, that it’s healing water,” said Todd Jarvis, an Oregon State University professor who studies the bottled water industry. “It’s great marketing.”
The price of water
At Safeway, a 24-pack of 16.9-ounce bottles of Nestlé’s Arrowhead spring water – the brand that would be bottled from Oxbow Springs – sells for $4.49.
The same amount of Pure Life water – the company’s brand of bottled municipal water – sells for $3.79.
The same amount of water from the tap would cost less than a penny.
So the world’s largest food and beverage company has hung on for six years, enduring legal challenges and public protests as it awaits state permits that would allow it to bottle and sell spring water now owned by the state government. Opponents warn against privatizing a public resource for corporate profits. Nestlé contends it’s simply responding to consumer demand.
Now, Nestlé wants to scrap the existing permitting process for an approach with the potential to cut the remaining wait time in half. Instead of obtaining the water through a gallon-for-gallon trade between the state and Cascade Locks city government, which would then sell the water to Nestlé, the company wants the state to trade its legal right to some of the Oxbow water.
The new tactic would also eliminate a key sticking point in the current permitting process: The question of whether the deal would negatively impact the public.
Under Nestlé’s direction, the Cascade Locks City Council voted last week to seek the Oregon Water Resources Department's permission to swap a portion of its well water right for .5 cubic feet per second of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s right to draw 10 cubic feet per second from Oxbow Springs. The agency uses the spring water to feed a nearby salmon hatchery.
Under the so-called cross transfer, ODFW would supply its hatchery with city well water during times when Oxbow’s flow is low, and the city would sell its spring water to Nestlé for a couple bucks per 1,000 gallons.
Nestlé, in turn, would sell the water to consumers for hundreds to thousands of times that amount. The bottling plant would employ up to 50 workers and would nearly double the city’s property tax revenue.
“It’s a win for everybody,” Cascade Locks Mayor Tom Cramblett said.
The city council’s vote represents a major shift for the city.
When Nestlé first approached Cascade Locks in 2008 with plans to build a 250,000 square foot bottling plant at the Port of Cascade Locks, city leaders aimed to trade their well water gallon-for-gallon in exchange for ODFW’s Oxbow Springs water. Both parties would retain the legal right to their original water source.
Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski directed fish and wildlife officials to pursue the deal, which his economic development team pegged as a boost for the struggling former timber town of 1,148 people.
But environmental and consumer rights groups mounted an opposition campaign led by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit known for battling Nestlé over bottled water. The groups warned against privatizing a public good, and pointed to other towns where Nestlé has been accused of overdrawing groundwater as cautionary tales.
“They will pick a place with spring water resources that needs jobs, then they’ll overpromise on jobs, overestimate their economic impact and underestimate their environmental impact,” said Julia DeGraw, an organizer with Food and Water Watch.
The group sued Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, arguing the agency hadn’t been using its full water allotment from the spring and under Oregon’s “use it or lose it” water law, no longer owned the unused water. The case stalled the planned water swap for years before a judge sided with ODFW last fall.
At the current rate, the permitting process is expected to take several more years, with legal challenges likely to follow if the Oregon Water Resources Department allows the water trade. Nestlé officials believe by swapping water rights instead of trading the water itself, they can speed up the process.
“It’s a simpler more direct way to accomplish the same objective,” said Dave Palais, Nestlé’s spokesman for the Cascade Locks project.
It would also require the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to go back on a promise not to forfeit its water right, and would remove regulators’ obligation to consider public impact when deciding whether to approve the deal.
Eliminating regulatory barriers
In order to get the new process underway, Nestlé and Cascade Locks need ODFW to agree to the cross transfer. Early on in the saga, fish and wildlife officials vowed not to entertain the idea of trading water rights. Now, agency spokesman Rick Swart said, the agency’s leaders are considering the agreement, provided the exchange “could be undone.”
Swart said the agency’s leadership has no timeline for making a decision.
State Water Resources Department spokeswoman Lisa Jaramillo said there’s no guarantee a water rights swap would take less time than the existing plan to swap water alone. Like the existing process, it would include opportunity for opponents to protest if the agency approves the swap.
However, a key point of consideration in the existing process doesn’t factor into cross-transfers: How the deal would impact the broader public.
That angers Nestlé opponents, who have already submitted thousands of letters in protest of the water trade.
It also doesn’t sit well with Tiffany Pruit, a former Cascade Locks City Council member who hasn’t made her mind up about whether the town should welcome Nestlé. She wants more answers about Nestlé’s environmental record and about who pays for road upkeep when the town’s one-lane main street becomes a shipping route for up to 200 trucks each day. So does Deanna Busdieker, a current council member.
Similar concerns drove Nestlé out of Enumclaw, Washington, and McCloud, California, where the company attempted to build bottling plants before approaching Cascade Locks.
“Nestlé is a ginormous conglomerate with endless resources, and we’re a town of under 1,200 people so basically if Nestlé comes here, we’re Nestlé town, Pruit said. “They’ll have everything, and we’ll just be along for the ride.”
Pruit noted Cascade Locks’ job outlook isn’t looking so desperate these days.
The port just sold 10 acres to Bear Mountain Forest Products, a company that manufactures wood fuel pellets for use in barbecues. Bear Mountain plans to expand its operation at the port and hire more employees. Port officials are in final negotiations with two other companies whose arrival would bring up to 50 more jobs.
“It’s huge,” said Paul Cook, the port’s interim general manager. But Cook said Nestlé remains a high priority.
“For this community,” he said, “every job, every company is a big deal.”
While city and port officials await ODFW’s response to their new plan, they are laying the groundwork to welcome Nestlé if and when the company gets access to Oxbow Springs. The port has set aside 25 acres in its business park for Nestlé, and the city council voted to offer negotiated pricing for water customers who use more than 250,000 gallons per month – a bar that only Nestlé would reach.
City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman said the plan is to sell water to Nestlé for less than Cascade Locks residents pay.
“The company has to make a profit or they’re not coming,” Zimmerman said.
Nestlé and Cascade Locks officials are prepared to wait as long as necessary to get the Oxbow water, which Palais said, “some customers simply prefer.”
Nestlé, for its part, continues to court the town's residents with free barbecues and donations of money and bottled water for community events.
“We have made our commitment to the community clear in our actions,” Palais said.