Governor says no to Nestlé, pulls plug on crucial water rights swap in gorge

Nestlé wanted to bottle the water from Oxbow Spring and sell it. (KATU Photo)

After nearly 10 years of work, city officials in Cascade Locks say their attempts to bring a Nestlé water bottling plant to the city may be over because a crucial water rights swap fell through.

Nestlé wants to bottle spring water, but that is something that Cascade Locks does not have. Cascade Locks has been working with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to swap the rights to some of their groundwater with water from the Oxbow Spring, which feeds the Oxbow Fish Hatchery.

On Friday, Gov. Kate Brown sent a letter to Curtis Melcher, director of the ODFW, asking the agency to withdraw its application for the water swap. She cited a 2016 ballot measure in Hood River County passed by nearly 70 percent of county residents that prohibits commercial water bottling.

“This law makes the ultimate goal of the proposed water exchange uncertain,” wrote Brown.

Brown also wrote that it was “irresponsible to incur additional significant state costs for an uncertain outcome.”

A spokesperson with ODFW told KATU News on Monday they will comply with the governor’s request, and withdraw their water exchange application. Now city leaders fear this may be the end to their years of effort.

“We’ll talk about it, but if you don't have a partner, you can't dance. I'm assuming that this effectively puts an end to the bottling of spring water in Cascade Locks,” said Gordon Zimmerman, Cascade Locks city administrator.

Zimmerman says City Council will discuss the developments during its next meeting on Nov. 13.

While a majority of Hood River County residents voted in favor of the 2016 ballot measure, Zimmerman says a majority of Cascade Locks residents opposed it, supporting the idea of Nestlé coming to Cascade Locks.

Zimmerman says they have plenty of water to give, and Nestlé would bring jobs and financial stability to a city whose unemployment rate was as high as 20 percent just a few years ago.

“Nestle offered 50 jobs. Granted, five of them would have been corporate jobs. But 45 would have been locals. Forty-five jobs in a population of 1,250 is equivalent to 25,000 jobs to Portland. That is the scale that we are looking at,” said Zimmerman.

He says this comes down to a battle of local control and whether or not a county should be able to tell a city what it can do with its resources.

Mayor Tom Cramblett says those opposed to Nestlé put out too much misinformation and misled Hood River County residents.

Others are applauding the governor.

Patty Lovera, the food and water policy director with Food and Water Watch, an organization that opposed the bottling plant, described this as a win.

“All over the country communities are really battling companies like Nestlé that want to extract their water resources,” said Lovera.

She says water bottling plants, like the one proposed in Cascade Locks, can cause environmental and regional problems.

“Just because you see us as having extra water, that doesn't mean it's up for grabs and you can just take it,” said Lovera.

The Oregon Water Resources Department says it has not yet received the letter from ODFW, formally withdrawing its water swap application.

A spokesperson for Nestlé Waters North America released the following statement: “We were disappointed to learn from city officials that the Governor has decided that the Exchange process will not be going forward. We are grateful to the residents, elected officials, neighborhood business owners and leaders who welcomed us to Cascade Locks, and who have supported our interest in bringing good paying jobs to the community.”

Brown says they are also looking to redouble efforts to address key economic development needs in Cascade Locks.

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