Photo by Adam Lapierre
Oxbow springs is a source of pristine water gushing from the base of steep cliff walls that dominate the Cascade Locks skyline. The spring, seen here near the Oxbow Fish Hatchery, is at the center of a continuing controversy, as the interests of environmental groups clash with potential economic development.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to trade water rights with Cascade Locks, which puts the city one step closer to bringing Nestlé’s proposed water bottling plant to its business park.
The city of Cascade Locks and the state agency filed joint paperwork to the Oregon Water Resources Department last Friday. If approved by the department, the city would transfer 0.5 cubic feet per second (cfs) — 225 gallons per minute — of its ground water right in exchange for 0.5 cfs of ODFW’s water right to Oxbow Spring, located near Oxbow Hatchery on the east side of Cascade Locks. The city would then sell the spring water to Nestlé for bottling in its proposed 250,000-square-foot plant.
In exchange, ODFW would use the city’s ground water for the Oxbow Fish Hatchery, sustaining its salmon tenants with a more consistent water source year-round.
The first 30-day comment period for the cross trade began Tuesday, according to Oregon Water Resources Department Senior Policy Coordinator Racquel Rancier. During this time, the department will review the cross transfer application. From there, another 30-day public "protest" period will commence. If opponents to the deal file a protest, the OWRD will enter a judicial hearing process before issuing its final decision.
Originally, the city and ODFW planned to enter a gallon-per-gallon “water exchange” without altering their respective water rights. However, due to ongoing legal pressure from environmental groups, both the city and Nestlé sought out a way to speed up the process: a cross water rights transfer.
According to a staff report earlier this year from the city of Cascade Locks, the cross transfer is projected to be quicker than the exchange, now taking an anticipated two years instead of four.
This option bypasses a public interest review and instead progresses to a review process conducted by OWRD.
Bark, one of the environmental groups opposed to the partnership, expressed frustration at ODFW for filing for the cross transfer. Bark director Alex Brown called ODFW’s cross land transfer decision “disappointing.”
“This is the state telling (citizens) your concerns don’t matter,” said Brown.
Brown said the cross transfer deal leaves less room for public decision-making. “We will still have the ability to comment … the difference is (the cross transfer) has a lower standard of review.”
According to Rancier, the state water resources department must now prove “injury” to water rights. There will be public comment, but the primary review will focus on the city and ODFW’s respective claims to the water sources.
Though the cross transfer is filed as “permanent,” the city will weigh options that could alter the deal in the future. In the staff report, the city stated, “If the plant should leave at some point in the future, another application for cross transfers can be processed to reverse this action.”
For years, Cascade Locks has tried to bring the Nestlé plant to town in order to boost the local economy with a fresh source of jobs and tax income. The deal would create an estimated 50 jobs and boost the city’s total tax revenue by 67 percent. The city’s unemployment rate is nearly 19 percent.
At its proposed plant, Nestlé hopes to bottle 100 million gallons of spring water annually and sell it around the Northwest. That amount sounds daunting but it only accounts for 1/80th of the state agency’s water right — 1.25 percent. Citizens of Cascade Locks use roughly that each year in water utilities, according to a March staff report from the city.
City manager Gordon Zimmerman feels the economic benefit would be substantial for Cascade Locks. “It’s about jobs. It’s about the ability of a city to survive,” said Zimmerman.
In its staff report, the city also claimed the new plant would minimize transportation for Nestlé’s pre-existing market in Portland. Supplies of Nestlé’s Arrowhead brand in the Northwest currently draw from a bottling facility in Sacramento, 600 miles away from Portland. In comparison, the Cascade Locks plant would be only 44 miles away which “substantially reduces the diesel fuel burned and carbon emissions created by the trucks,” according to the report.
Traffic in Cascade Locks, however, would increase. Nestlé would bring 100 trucks through town daily, a total of 200 trips. It would be the first time Cascade Locks faced a traffic load of that magnitude since its days as a logging town in the late 20th century.
The city is considering options in response to the semi-trailers potentially rolling through town. These include addition lanes, sidewalks or even a new loop around the weigh station, which would allow the trucks to bypass the main drag of WaNaPa Street.