CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. – When you think of the Columbia River Gorge, nature is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Trails meandering past waterfall after waterfall; clear, pristine lakes; wind whipping across the state's largest river.
That's exactly why a proposed Nestle water bottling plant has so many people infuriated. The world's largest food and beverage company wants to build a plant in the tiny, scenic town of Cascade Locks, bottling spring water in a 250,000-square-foot facility and loading up the plastic bottles on semi-trucks for distribution.
"This is not a corporation that I want coming into the Gorge," said Julia DeGraw of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, which has opposed the plant since it was first proposed in 2008. "It just seems like a reckless idea."
But the town of Cascade Locks, which has an 18.8 percent unemployment rate, says the plant would bring a much-needed boost to the economy in an area that has plenty of water to sell.
"Our little town is running on a shoestring budget," said city administrator Gordon Zimmerman. "This is substantial money."
The fight over the water flowing out of Oxbow Springs has entered its seventh year, but it is nowhere near over. Here's where the bottling plant debate stands and what's at stake for the Gorge and the state.
In order to sell Nestle water from Oxbow Springs, Cascade Locks is trying to trade water rights with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife because ODFW actually owns the right to Oxbow Springs water. In exchange for 0.5 cubic feet per second (about 225 gallons per minute) of Oxbow Springs water, Cascade Locks would give ODFW the same amount of water rights to the Herman Creek aquifer.
Cascade Locks would then turn around and sell that 0.5 cubic feet per second – which shakes out to around 118 million gallons per year. That's one-twentieth the amount of water that ODFW is legally able to take from the spring right now.
It's enough to water a nine-hole golf course for a year, or nearly fill all of Mt. Tabor's reservoirs.
Currently, transfer applications are in the hands of the Oregon Water Resources Department. OWRD staff is reviewing them and expect to make a preliminary determination later this summer.
Then, detractors can file a formal protest – which the Food and Water Watch plans to do. The appeals process could take up to two years. After that, ORWD will issue its final order.
The general consensus is the quickest that process could be completed is by 2018.
Three years from now, if everything goes as planned by Cascade Locks, Nestle could begin getting the necessary permits for building the bottling plant in the Gorge.
No one enters into a decade-long battle without thinking they have something really big to win – or lose. On one side, you have the town of Cascade Locks, which says Nestle would be like Prince Charming coming to swoop in and rescue its struggling economy. On the other side, conservation groups say this could have disastrous consequences for the environment in a time when water is becoming scarcer.
Although Oregon currently is home to more than 30 water bottling plants, this one would be the first to use spring water owned by the state, according to Julia DeGraw of Food and Water Watch.
DeGraw fears that, if Oregon were to experience a drought like California, Nestle could emulate how they are currently acting in the San Bernadino National Forest. The company continues to pipe spring water out of the forest even though the state is in the middle of a bone-sucking drought.
"We should not be allowing state agencies to make public water available to multinational corporations that have a bad track record," she said. "Especially during water scarcity. And it's pretty clear that water scarcity is going to become the new normal."
According to Zimmerman, even though Hood River County is experiencing a drought, Cascade Locks has plenty of water.
"We're in a little kind of a microclimate here in the gorge," he said. "It rains. A lot."
Todd Jarvis, an Oregon State University hydrologist who has studied bottled water for more than two decades, concurs.
"There's plenty of water there," he said.
Jarvis compared the water use to breweries or wineries. He believes part of the issue in Cascade Locks is that people are in awe of spring water.
"People think springs are magical, so they're kind of protective of them," he said.
That association, he says, is why Nestle and others can charge a premium for spring water as opposed to chemically identical well water.
But even if there is enough water for all, Jarvis said there are other, indirect environmental concerns, including the trucks Nestle plans to use.
"You have trucks moving the water from the plant to the grocery stores," he said. "Then you have people in the grocery stores putting it in their cars driving it home. Then the bottles go to the recycling bin to the trash and they're hauled off by trucks. There's a pretty hefty hydrocarbon footprint."
That cycle of around 200 trucks moving in and out of the plant in the summer isn't exactly the most environmentally friendly scenario. The bottles, too, are problematic, although a Nestle spokesman said the company is incorporating more recycled plastic into its bottle design. Jarvis pointed out that, instead of Nestle purchasing plastic bottles, they could make them out of all recycled plastic in house like EartH20 does in Culver.
But there are plenty of other companies that bottle water in plastic. Bottled water is a $100 billion a year industry, Jarvis said.
And Cascade Locks wants a cut.
If Nestle builds its $50 million plant in Cascade Locks, it estimates it will create up to 50 competitive-wage jobs in exchange for property tax breaks.
The town will also see an influx of cash from water and waste bills. The plant will use around 2.1 million gallons of water a month to run the plant, which costs $63,000 a year. That's a 50 percent increase from current revenue. In addition, Nestle would increase the town's income from wastewater by 40 percent (even though Nestle will only create 14 percent of the town's wastewater) and double the city's electricity usage.
Nestle created this video to document the economic need in Cascade Locks
Cascade Locks will, of course, sell Nestle the spring water – for a couple bucks per 1,000 gallons.
That's an economic coup for the Swiss company, according to Jarvis. He said that price is a steal and wonders why we Nestle can't be taxed for water the same way the state taxes other natural resources.
"If you cut down a tree in Oregon, there's a tax to it," he said. "We all own that water – shouldn't we get a piece of the action?"
Nestle will be able to start building the Cascade Locks plant in a few years if the state, town and Nestle itself continue to support the plan.
Cascade Locks could take ownership of the Oxbow Springs water rights, but they don't have to sell to Nestle. There are a couple city councilors who are wary of the proposal, DeGraw said.
The Oregon Water Resources Department could deny the application, or shut it down following appeals.
Gov. Kate Brown could also step in, which DeGraw hopes happens. But Brown's office said that's not the plan right now.
"Governor Brown expects Oregon's state agencies to follow all laws and regulatory processes to the letter. Preserving the integrity and objectivity of these and all regulatory processes is paramount," the governor's office said in a statement. "Over the six years the City of Cascade Locks and ODFW have been working together, the Governor's office has monitored these processes closely, and will continue to do so."
Zimmerman said he's confident the state will support the plant. After all, Cascade Locks only has a few things to offer economically.
"Cities exist because of the resources they have," he said. "We have three resources here: wind for sailing, dirt for biking, and water," he said. "Let's take a resource that we have and be able to use it to stimulate the economy in a little town that's had hard times."
More: KGW Investigates