Oregon Voters Reject Nestle's Water Grab

Nestle's plan to bottle pristine water from a natural spring in the Columbia River Gorge suffered a blow Tuesday, when voters approved a measure to block the company's plan.

The measure may end Nestle Waters North America's seven-year campaign to open a water-bottling plant outside of Cascade Locks, population 1,148, and tap 100 million gallons annually from Oxbow Springs under the brand name Arrowhead.

Proponents said the plant would add about 50 jobs to the community, and bring in property-tax revenues that would almost double the county's tax base. Detractors said the county needs its water for its citizens, agriculture and wildlife.

Hood River County straddles the dividing line between the wet and dry sides of the state, and was one of the two-thirds of Oregon counties to declare a drought state of emergency last year.

Measure 14-55 passed easily with 69 percent of the vote. But its effect is not yet clear.

Aurora del Val, leader of the Local Water Alliance—the group that sponsored the ballot measure—said that she was thrilled by the win, but expects Nestle to keep fighting to open the plant.

Del Val said the local fight against a huge corporation had drawn the community together across the normal political dividing lines.

"We watched a county measure garner overwhelming bipartisan support right in the midst of a record heat wave and drought," Del Val said. "Hood River County's economy is based on agriculture. We have over 100 local businesses and 60-plus orchards and vineyards, so regardless of political perspective, people really get it over here that water is essential for a healthy economy. We have to be really smart about how we use our water supply."

Nestle said in a statement that it was disappointed that the ballot measure blocking its plans passed, but "pleased to see that the voters of Cascade Locks have spoken out in opposition to the measure."

The company added, "While we firmly believe this decision on a county primary ballot is not in the best interest of Cascade Locks, we respect the democratic process."

Nestle spokesman David Palais did not return a phone call requesting comment.

Del Val said she didn't trust Nestle's claim that it would respect the will of the voters. She said she wouldn't be surprised if Nestle files a lawsuit, but that it was more likely that the company would launch a sneaky operation to get its way.

Nestle funneled $105,000 to the political action committee Coalition for a Strong Gorge Economy. That money accounted for 90 percent of the group's reported funding, and Del Val said Nestle hid its contributions for months in an effort to make the committee look like a local effort.

Nestle amended its campaign-finance reporting to name itself, rather than the International Bottled Water Association — of which it is a member — as the contributor of a $35,000 donation in April, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's campaign-finance database.

"We expect that there will be some kind of pushback, but they'll probably take the tactic of not acting directly and they might use the cover of an opposition group like the Coalition for a Strong Gorge Economy," Del Val said.

But Del Val said she expected the measure to hold up, despite any legal challenges Nestle might throw her community's way. She said local law firm Crag Law Center helped draft the measure in a way that would keep Nestle from finding a loophole to squeak through.

And the win could pave the way for other communities to wage similar battles.

"We think we've created a road map where local people can flex their muscle and kick out big companies," Del Val said.


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