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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sweet Deal: Nestlé Still Wants Columbia Gorge Water

Posted by Nathan Gilles on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 11:44 AM

Protesters yesterday in Terry Schrunk Plaza
  • Protesters yesterday in Terry Schrunk Plaza

Over 150 people gathered yesterday afternoon in downtown's Terry Schrunk Plaza to oppose Nestlé’s attempts to open a water bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge town of Cascade Locks.

Remember this issue? Well it’s still happening. And thanks to a recent order by the state water board, at least for the moment, Nestlé could be winning.

Since 2009, the Swiss-based corporation, best known for chocolate products like Kit Kat and Nesquick, has had its eye on spring water just east of Cascade Locks. But to get at it, the company has had to jump through some hoops, and not just those imposed by pesky environmentalists.

The story goes something like this: The city of Cascade Locks doesn’t have the legal right to the water they want to sell to Nestlé. Instead, that water belongs to the state, specifically the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which uses the spring water for a fish hatchery. But as of this spring, a process to transfer those water rights from the state to the city is in motion. This is not the actual transfer, but a kind of dress rehearsal for the real thing. But it does show that even if Nestlé hasn’t got a full foot in the door, it’s getting there.

Washington DC-based Food and Water Watch is appealing the water board’s action. That group has been a pain in Nestlé’s ass since the company first set its sights on Cascade Locks. Yesterday’s protest was primarily a Food and Water Watch affair, with head organizer Julia DeGraw playing MC for several speakers and a folksy band espousing the evils of bottled water in verse.

Even though DeGraw’s group was originally depicted by its opposition as a bunch of meddling outsiders, she and her organization have managed to amass a strong local coalition of like-minded locals—including Occupy Portland, a faith-based group, and a union—under the aptly named umbrella group, the Keep Nestlé out of the Gorge Coalition.

But the water board’s decision could be a real blow to the protestors, who have put a lot of credence on the fact that the spring water prized by Nestlé legally belongs to the state (that means every Oregonian, not just residents of Cascade Locks). To counter the water board’s action, Food and Water Watch has filed official appeals with the water board.

“This is the first time an entire state has had a say in whether Nestlé can bottle their water,” DeGraw told the Mercury. “The bureaus ultimately answer to the governor. And we are trying to tell Governor Kitzhaber that he is either with Nestlé or he is with every Oregonian.”

At the protest yesterday, DeGraw called Kitzhaber's office and left the governor a collective message via cell phone. “Water is a human right. Don’t let Nestlé win this fight,” the crowd chanted on Kitzhaber’s voicemail.

So what exactly would a Nestlé factory do for Cascade Locks? Proponents have said it would add to the tax base and provide jobs for the town. But at yesterday’s protest Michigan resident Terry Swier offered the crowd a cautionary tale.

“Personally I hope Nestlé doesn’t get in [Cascade Locks],” Swier told the Mercury. And she has her reasons.

Swier is the leading force behind Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, a group that fought a nine-year court battle with Nestlé over a bottling plant in Mecosta County Michigan. (If you've seen the film FLOW, you know her story). As Swier told the plaza crowd, her organization eventually won its case against the Swiss giant when the courts determined Nestlé’s pumping was hurting the local water supply. But this only came after, what she says, was years of harassment by the company. Swier told the Mercury, she hoped the residents of Cascade Locks were asking Nestlé tough questions about what the bottling plant would mean to their town. When asked if she thought they were, Swier, who has been to Cascade Locks to meet with locals, sighed and said, “No, they’re not.”

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