Voters have been asked whether to block large-scale bottling corporations like Nestlé from tapping into waterways in Hood River County, with campaigns in favor and against running at full steam.
The “Water Protection Measure” seeks to amend Hood River County’s charter to prohibit any company from bottling or transporting 1,000 or more gallons of water per day. It’s one of two countywide measures on the May 17 primary election ballot, along with a $57 million school facilities bond (that measure would replace the current schools bond without raising taxes).
Campaigns on both sides of Measure 14-55 have surged forward, with door-to-door petitioning, lawn signs, mailers, radio and newspaper ads, and social media campaigns.
Local Water Alliance (LWA), who filed the petition in September, have argued the measure would protect water supplies for fish and farm use while shielding the county from increased truck traffic that bottlers would bring. Blue signs reading “Our Water, Our Future” represent the group.
“Local politicians have unfortunately failed to take steps to protect our water supply from bottled water exports and so now it’s time for voters to do what our politicians haven’t,” Aurora del Val, LWA campaign director said.
Coalition for a Stronger Gorge Economy (CSGE) argues the measure violates the spirit of home rule governance and crushes job growth in Cascade Locks, which has unemployment at 18.8 percent according to 2015 census data. Their red signs say “Don’t hurt Cascade Locks.”
“14-55 is destructive, un-neighborly, mean spirited … and based on lies,” Richard Randall, Cascade Locks city councilor and member of the coalition, said in a statement. He called the measure “unconstitutional” and argued environmental concerns are false.
Cash funding for each group was nearly tied as of Thursday, according to filings in Oregon Secretary of State’s online database.
LWA listed $41,841 in cash contributions. CSGE had racked up $41,949. In-kind contributions, however, were much higher for LWA with $41,538 versus the coalition’s $362.
LWA’s major backers include Food & Water Watch and Story of Stuff Project. The group in April announced endorsements from 100 local businesses and farms, including some prominent companies like Tofurky and Solstice Wood Fire Café.
CSGE raked in most of its contributions from International Bottled Water Association ($35,000) and Northwest Bottled Water Association ($5,000). Nestlé is a member of those groups, a spokesman confirmed last month.
The coalition’s members include elected city and port officials, as well as local business owners like Fred Duckwall of Hood River and Soderberg Gallery & Studio in Cascade Locks. More than 100 endorsements are logged on the group’s website.
Port of Cascade Locks General Manager Paul Koch explained that city and port staffers aren’t involved in either coalition’s campaign activities.
Voters will decide whether to vote “yes” or “no” on the water measure by May 17, primary election day.
The Nestlé question
For nearly eight years, Nestlé has tried to build a plant in Cascade Locks, accessing water from Oxbow Spring, which Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) uses to rear salmon. ODFW holds the water right, which is regulated by Oregon Water Resources Department.
Via a direct water exchange, the city would swap 0.5 cubic feet per second (cfs) of municipal well water for an equal portion of ODFW’s spring water — equivalent to about 40 acres of irrigated land, according to local irrigation managers.
The city would sell spring water to Nestlé as a big industrial customer for bottling at a plant on port property. Nestlé would export those bottles in trucks to markets around the Northwest.
Amid delays during protests by conservation groups, the city and ODFW tried in 2015 to speed up the process by trading water rights but Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in November told the agencies to withdraw that plan and switch back to the original exchange process, which requires a deeper public interest review.
Cascade Locks officials are scheduled to meet with Brown in person later this month to discuss aspects of the water exchange and traffic mitigation, Port Commission President Jess Groves said.
HR County Commissioners voice legal concerns over 14-55
The “Water Protection Measure” would face legal hurdles if it passes, according to Hood River County Commissioners.
The county board hasn’t taken formal action regarding 14-55, but four of five commissioners told the News (on their own behalf) they are opposed to the charter amendment on legal grounds. The commissioners argued the measure wouldn’t be legally enforceable due to state law and would make way for legal battles— and eat into county funds — if passed.
If it passes, “we’ll ask for it to be overturned … we made the (Oregon Department of Justice) aware last week,” Chair Ron Rivers said.
In Oregon, water rights belong to the state, Commissioner Bob Benton said, and the county doesn’t have extensive control over those rights.
“State water law can’t be trumped by county law,” said Commissioner Les Perkins, who is also manager of Farmers Irrigation District. “The county would be on the hook to defend (the measure) from challengers.”
“What worries me is this will cost the county money … the county is already in very serious jeopardy of losing the current level of services we have,” Commissioner Karen Joplin said.
Joplin felt that a land use process with a citizen ad hoc committee — like the cell tower advisory committee — would be a better avenue to address impacts of water bottling companies.
Commisioner Maui Meyer was contacted by the News, but did not respond by press time.
When asked about the county’s legal qualms, del Val called the objections “red herrings” distracting from the issue of water use.
“The county has no obligation to spend a dime to defend the ballot measure and we don’t expect they will,” del Val said.
“I’m sure (the measure is) going to have its day in court if it does pass,” Rivers said.