Citing legal issues and costs, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown asked state officials Friday to quash a water exchange with Cascade Locks that would make possible a Nestlé water bottling plant.
Brown sent a letter Oct. 27 to Curt Melcher, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director, asking the agency to withdraw a 2010 water exchange application between ODFW and the City of Cascade Locks.
The proposal — introduced about nine years ago — involves exchanging a portion of spring water from Oxbow Springs, which supplies ODFW’s salmon hatchery, for an equal amount of the city’s groundwater.
Under the exchange, both ODFW and the city would retain their existing water rights, but the sources of water would be swapped. The city would sell spring water to Nestlé for bottling at a $50 million plant.
Since 2008, Cascade Locks leaders touted the new jobs they said the project would bring, while environmental activists and Columbia River tribes decried the deal as a termed corporatization of public water.
Brown said state agencies have already expended “significant resources, including legal costs on this matter,” and that processing the exchange would lead to “expected challenges and court appeals.”
A Hood River County voter measure cast doubt on the outcome of the water swap, Brown said.
In 2016, about 69 percent of Hood River County voters passed “Water Protection Measure,” to amend the county’s charter to prohibit large-scale commercial water bottling operations, such as Nestlé’s. Voters in Cascade Locks, however, sided against the measure by 58 percent.
“This law makes the ultimate goal of the proposed water exchange uncertain,” Brown said.
Brown noted the city could use its water rights to supply ground water to the plant, but the decision on whether to approve the water exchanges goes through the Oregon Water Resources Department and its commission.
She acknowledged economic struggles in Cascade Locks, which suffered from the Eagle Creek fire this summer. The governor and her staff visited Marine Park Pavilion last month to hear concerns from the public.
Brown said she asked her Regional Solutions Office and Business Oregon to work with the city and Port of Cascade Locks to “redouble efforts to address key economic development needs.”
Friday’s letter was the second time Brown intervened against state-city partnerships involved in the Nestlé deal.
In 2015, Brown sent similar letters to Melcher and the Oregon Water Resources Department director, urging the agencies to pull back a needed regulatory step in the project.
The Nov. 6, 2015, letters referenced a separate strategy by which the city and ODFW attempted to expedite the Nestlé development — a cross water rights transfer. Brown asked the state to instead reopen the direct water exchange process — the original proposal Nestlé volleyed — in order to allow more public review.
ODFW would trade 0.5 cubic feet per second of spring water from Oxbow for the same amount of city ground water, via the proposal.
This time, Brown dealt the project a more serious blow by calling off the water exchange.
A Nestlé Waters of North America representative, who asked to be referred to as a “spokesperson,” said the company was disappointed in Brown’s decision, but did not comment on the company’s future plans in the Columbia Gorge.
“We are grateful to the residents, elected officials, neighborhood business owners and leaders who welcomed us to Cascade Locks, and who have supported our interest in bringing good paying jobs to the community,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, applauded Brown’s action in a statement: “Gov. Brown’s decision to back out of this wrongheaded deal is a hard-won victory for the communities in Hood River County that have waged a nine-year battle to keep Nestlé from seizing their water.”
Cascade Locks officials haven’t yet taken formal action in response.
Gordon Zimmerman, city administrator, said in an email that city council “will meet on Nov. 13 to discuss the next steps, if any.”
City council meets monthly at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 140 WaNaPa St.