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Rush hour across the Hawthorne Bridge Thursday morning was an unusually rowdy affair.
Along with the motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians making their way toward Downtown Portland, about 150 demonstrators gathered at the bridge's eastern approach to decry the state's plan to let Nestlé bottle and sell water from a Columbia River Gorge spring.
The protestors stood, waving "No to Nestlé" signs and chanting "Gov. Brown, don't let us down!" while passing commuters honked their horns in support, or breezed by without batting an eye.
The protest signals a backlash to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's decision last week to proceed with a plan to speed up the permitting process for a Nestlé bottled water plant in Cascade Locks while cutting public interest out of the equation.
The world's largest food and beverage company has been eyeing the 1,148-person town since 2008 as a prime site for its first Northwest bottling plant. Nestlé has other spring water plants throughout the nation, including several in California.
Nestlé's plan in Cascade Locks hinges upon the state's cooperation. The fish and wildlife department owns water rights at Oxbow Springs, which Nestlé wants to tap for its Arrowhead spring water brand. Nestlé has a tentative agreement with the Cascade Locks city leadership to build a $50 million bottling plant in the town, employing up to 50 people and nearly doubling the city's property tax revenue.
For the deal to work, the city must gain access to Oxbow Springs, and then sell the water to Nestlé as a municipal utility customer.
Initially, city and state leaders planned to accomplish that task by trading water gallon-for-gallon. The state would give Cascade Locks 0.5 cubic feet per second of spring water in exchange for an equal amount of city well water. Under that plan, state regulators tasked with approving or denying the trade have been required to consider the trade's impact on the public.
Trading water rights, however, requires no public interest review and is expected to take less time. Protestors at Thursday's demonstration argue the city and state's decision to pursue that route amounts to an attempt to silence opposition.
"The idea that they're going to sell the state's water is ridiculous," said Brook Kirklin, 52, of Portland. "It doesn't belong to them - it belongs to us."
Demonstrators' reasons for opposing the plant are myriad. Some argue Nestlé's plan in Cascade Locks amounts to privatization of a public resource. Others worry about the environmental impacts of all those plastic bottles and the fossil fuels needed to ship them to the store. Some simply scoff at the idea of selling water for hundreds of times the amount it costs to draw from the tap.
Recently, the company has come under intense scrutiny in California for failing to curb its water use despite a severe drought that has residents throughout the state scaling back. The U.S. Forest Service is also reviewing the company's practices in the San Bernardino National Forest, where it has continued to pump water even though its permit to transport it across the forest expired years ago.
Cascade Locks resident Kathy Tittle, who joined Thursday's demonstration, said she worries a Nestlé plant in Cascade Locks would cause the same problems in Oregon.
"I'm screaming from the rooftops that I don't want that here," Tittle said.
Nestlé supporters say a bottling plant would bring badly needed jobs to Cascade Locks, while capitalizing on a readily available resource.
What's next in the process? The Oregon Water Resources Department is in charge of approving or denying ODFW and Cascade Locks' applications. A 30-day public comment period is underway. After reviewing comments, the agency will issue a preliminary decision. Another month of public comment will follow before Water Resources makes a final call on the proposed water rights swap.
-- Kelly House