Nestlé on the ballot

Oxbow Springs cascades from the basalt cliffs above Cascade Locks and now stands at the crux between a community's need for jobs and wider concerns on the use of publically owned Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spring water. Nestle' is negotiating with city leaders for a bottling plant which would share spring and city well water resources for its operations.

For its first monthly meeting in its new headquarters in Salem, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission christened its new digs by hearing pro and con testimony regarding a proposal to build a Nestlé water bottling plant in the city of Cascade Locks.

The Sept. 6 meeting brought together proponents, opponents, and neutral parties who are stakeholders in the project that has been in the development stages for the past five years.

Nestlé Waters North America is eyeing the city of Cascade Locks as a site for a $50-million, 250,000-square-foot water bottling plant that would utilize water from the city’s supply as well as tap into the nearby Oxbow Springs. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife currently holds the water right to the springs, which it uses to rear fish at the Oxbow Hatchery on the outskirts of Cascade Locks.

ODFW currently has an application with the Oregon Water Resources Department to exchange a small portion of its Oxbow Springs water right for an equal amount of Cascade Locks city well water, while still retaining control of the Oxbow Springs right. ODFW would then utilize the city water to increase hatchery production during the low-flow period of July to December. In turn, Cascade Locks would then supply the Oxbow Springs water to Nestlé.

ODFW is to date embroiled with three protests regarding the water right that have been raised by BARK and Food and Water Watch: two environmental watchdog groups that are concerned with the impacts they say the bottling plant will have on the environment.

BARK Executive Director Alex P. Brown was in attendance at the meeting in Salem on Friday and shared his concerns with the commission about the project.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to discuss with the commission — to talk about the consequences of giving away what is currently public water to a private corporation,” he said and also noted how waste from the plastic water bottles and the carbon footprint of the plant would negatively impact the environment.

State Representative Mark Johnson was also in attendance at the meeting and remarked that he wasn’t impressed by the case made by project opponents for putting a kibosh on the bottling plant.

“I think they’re very thin,” he said of their arguments. “I think the longer they talk, the weaker their objections become.”

Rep. Johnson said he was definitely in favor of the proposal, which he described as “a good way to sustainably use a vast resource.” He also cited a need for jobs in a city saddled with unemployment and said he is interested in “any way we can improve the job base in that community.”

Dave Palais, natural resources manager for NWNA, said he “appreciated the opportunity to speak directly to the Commission and clear up misunderstandings and the incorrect allegations made by project opponents.”

Gordon Zimmerman, city administrator for Cascade Locks, made the trip down to Salem to testify to the commission about the benefits the bottling plant could provide to the city, particularly upgrades to its infrastructure.

“The impact of Nestlé can certainly help facilitate both the repair of our water system and help Nestlé get the water they need,” he said.

Regarding objections made to the proposal, Zimmerman said he understood “all that and we appreciate them bringing up those points to make sure we do our due diligence.”

One thing the parties all agreed to was the commission asked tough questions of both proponents and opponents of the bottling plant. Brown noted though that commission “didn’t tip their hand” as to its position on the matter.

“I can only hope they are seriously reconsidering the application,” he said.

The commission meeting was strictly informational and no action on the bottling plant was taken.

The next step in the process is for a judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings to deliver a ruling on a protest filed by BARK asking for the partial cancelation of the Oxbow Hatchery’s water right. That hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 15 and 16. ODFW estimates the “contested case hearing processes will likely be completed by the end of the year,” but that the appeal process, if necessary, could take “an additional year or two,” meaning the bottling plant likely won’t be built, if at all, for another two or three years.

Zimmerman also noted that Cascade Locks does not currently have any binding agreements with NWNA regarding the bottling plant, which would take even more time to hash out, if that day does arrive.

“We have no signed contracts, no deals… all that is in the future,” he said.