Nestlé’s plan to bottle water in Oregon just hit a major snag

Nestlé, creative innovator behind “Quicky” the Nesquik Bunny, and also (some deem) an evil international corporation, has been waging a slow-motion battle against the people of Oregon for the better part of a decade. At least that’s how a lot of residents of the Columbia River Gorge see it. In the water privatization deal that’s made national headlines, protests have intensified asNestlé closes in on its goal to extract hundreds of millions of gallons of water from Oxbow Springs in a swap between the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Cascade Locks. As I’ve written before, nobody really wants this deal to go through except Nestlé and the Cascade Locks City Council (the bulk of whom see the money from water sales as a necessity for their economically depressed community). Nevertheless, the deal has marched on towards materialization, largely unimpeded by state officials.

That is, until last week.

Last Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sent a letter to the ODFW, asking that it withdraw its application for the water-rights transfer. As The Oregonian reports, this will force the ODFW to “scrap its latest strategy to free up water for a Nestlé bottled water plant in Cascade Locks, in favor of an approach that lets regulators consider the public impacts of relinquishing water in the midst of a drought.” The water rights transfer was seen by many as a way for Nestlé and the Cascade Locks city council to circumvent public review. Without it, there will now be a more open forum, by which ecological review and public comment will be given more consideration.

Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs: Using historical precedent  

Brown’s decision didn’t happen in a vacuum; it came as the result of prolonged pressure from activist groups throughout Oregon–many of which have fought tooth-and-nail to obstruct the deal since its inception way back in 2007.

One of the major activist forces has been the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Umatilla, which met with Brown last week to express concern for the ecological effects that the Nestlé deal would have when combined with Oregon’s current drought.

The Tribes became a more vocal opponent of the deal earlier this year when they invoked an 150 year old treaty between the U.S. government and their Native communities that stipulates Cascade Locks is technically located on “aboriginal lands.” The old legal loophole essentially says that the resources of the land go with priority to the native population, and any outside agent’s extraction of said resources must be reviewed to certify that their business will not impede the needs of the local communities. In layman’s terms, this means that the water in the Columbia River Gorge is essentially first-come, first-serve, and the Tribe members have a legally mandated “first dibs” on it because they’ve been around the longest.

The conversation surrounding the treaty has mobilized members of the Tribe to enact various forms of protest. Anna Mae Leonard, a 57 year old tribe member, fasted without food for five days in front of the Cascade Locks city council building, begging the Cascade Locks legislators to “let go of Nestlé, and explore different options for economic development.” In another instance, nearly one hundred tribe members protested outside the Oregon state capitol, decrying what they felt was the monetization of one of their “sacred” resources.

Whether the quasi-ancient treaty has enough legal precedent to stop Nestlé is questionable; yet the activism and events by the Tribes has helped to add kindling to the PR-fire that has been building against the Nestlé deal for some time.

The Local Water Alliance’s Protection measure

Nestle, via Creative Commons

Nestle, via Creative Commons

The other power player in the fight against Nestlé has been the Local Water Alliance, a grass-roots activist group which has staged sit-ins and protests throughout the Gorge. Many of the group’s events have been spearheaded by Deanna Busdieker–the sole dissenting member of the Cascade City council, who joined the group after feeling she was getting nowhere with the other legislators.

The Alliance’s most important action so far has been to introduce the Hood River County Water Protection Measure. The measure would ban “any business from producing 1,000 or more gallons of bottled water per day for commercial sale” in Hood River county, and would effectively put the kibosh on Nestlé’s proposed plan (which would extract somewhere around 324,000 gallons per day).

The activists are in the process of petitioning for signatures so that the measure can be considered for the May 17, 2016, primary election ballot. The deadline for the signatures is March 15th.

Kate Brown’s Breakthrough

The fact that Kate Brown put the brakes on the water-rights transfer is pretty good news, though many see her announcement as long overdue. Brown held off for a quite a while, and would’ve probably been content to let the Nestlé deal go through, had it not been for the insistence by Oregonian groups that the water-rights swap was a repressive and undemocratic move. While the battle’s not over yet, it’s certainly a significant victory for the activists who have been resisting Nestlé’s plans from day one. The level of mobilization by Oregon’s grass-roots groups is encouraging. Though it’s taken years, these small constituencies seem to have shown their ability to impact the decisions being made in the highest of political offices.

Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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