As of Friday, May 20, 2016
Measure 14-55, which blocks large-scale bottling companies like Nestlé from tapping into county water sources, sailed through the May 17 Primary Election with 69 percent of votes.
“Water Protection Measure” amends the Hood River County charter to prohibit any company from producing or transporting 1,000 or more gallons of bottled water per day. That includes all water labeled and marketed as “water” in plastic and glass bottles, jugs, or similar containers. A citizen group, Local Water Alliance, launched 14-55 last fall in response to Nestlé Waters North America’s years-long attempt to site a $50 million bottling plant in Cascade Locks which would access nearby Oxbow Spring. Aurora del Val, LWA campaign director, called the measure’s passing a “landslide” victory.
“We were unwilling to allow Nestlé or any other corporation put our local water supply at risk at a time when we’re heading into a period of major water limitations,” del Val said. Hood River County declared a drought emergency last summer. At the time, Cascade Locks leaders argued that their city wasn’t in drought, and gets about 77 inches of rain per year.
A Nestlé spokesman said in a written statement the company was disappointed 14- 55 passed.
“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,” said Dave Palais, Nestlé’s local representative.
Voters in the Hood River Valley passed the bottling ban by a wide margin. Popularity was highest in the city of Hood River, with its three precincts averaging 78 percent in favor. The only precincts in the Hood River Valley with voter approval lower than 60 percent were the outlying area southeast of the city — Pine Grove (Precinct 8) — and Dee (Precinct 9), with 57 percent of residents in both regions saying “yes.” Cascade Locks was the only precinct where the measure failed, with 58 percent voting against it.
The breakdown was 261 votes against, 190 in favor. The small town of about 1,200 residents cast 457 ballots out of 8,235 countywide.
While highly successful in the arena of public opinion countywide, 14-55 still faces legal unknowns, according to county officials.
“We know there are questions over the authority of the county to impose the measure,” County Administrator David Meriwether said.
Several county commissioners told the News this month they opposed the charter amendment on legal grounds. They argued it would leave the county responsible for defending the measure in court, and they anticipated it wouldn’t be defensible because Oregon water rights are held by the state.
Meriwether said some challengers who might bring forward a lawsuit against the county were Nestlé, municipalities, or water management districts. County Chair Ron Rivers said the county would likely ask the Oregon Department of Justice to overturn the measure if it passed.
County legal staff recently contacted the state to ask what stake the department will have in 14-55’s future, Meriwether said.
An ODJ representative said the state does have an “authority and right” to engage in the issue. However, the representative didn’t state if the department would take action.
Gordon Zimmerman, Cascade Locks City Administrator, said Council and staff will likely discuss next steps at Monday’s meeting.
The proposed Nestlé deal and voter measure pose a complicated land use scenario. Since 2008, Nestlé has tried site a plant in Cascade Locks, accessing water from a diversion point at Oxbow Spring, which Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) uses to rear fish at Oxbow Hatchery east of town. To feed the proposed plant, the city wants to swap 0.5 cubic feet per second (cfs) — 225 gallons per minute — of municipal well water for an equal portion of ODFW’s spring water.
The city would sell spring water to Nestlé for bottling at a plant on port property. Nestlé would export those bottles in trucks to markets around the Northwest. Cascade Locks has its own municipal charter which the county charter doesn’t override, according to Zimmerman. However, Oxbow Spring flows in a gray area— the city’s urban growth boundary — where the county could potentially get involved in land use regulations via its planning department.
Meriwether said the Board of Commissioners will discuss options with legal counsel, and he hopes they will find “resolution” on the issue.
Proponents of 14-55 said they wouldn’t be surprised if Nestlé sues over the issue, but the group will continue to fight against the bottling plant, citing the will of voters. “While it’s our hope that the overwhelming democratic vote is supported and respected by Nestlé, we plan to be actively engaged in any effort to overturn the will of county voters,” del Val said.