By Alison Vekshin
Nestle SA's plan to bottle Oregon's spring water is stoking a fight with lawmakers and environmental activists who say a corporation shouldn't be allowed to profit from a natural resource as drought spreads across the state.
The Oregon Water Resources Department is considering a proposal that would allow Nestle, the largest water bottler in the U.S., to buy spring water from Cascade Locks, a sleepy town 44 miles east of downtown Portland where the company would open a bottling plant.
"The Nestle deal is a wake-up call," said state Rep. Ann Lininger, a Democrat from Lake Oswego who opposes the proposal. "We need to take some thoughtful action to make sure we are protecting water we need for people, the environment, fish and farmers in Oregon as we head into a future that's shaped by climate change."
A drought gripping the U.S. West is putting a spotlight on water bottlers, including Nestle, based in Vevey, Switzerland, and Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., for selling spring water from a region where farmers are being forced to leave land unused, residents face mandatory cutbacks and policy makers are considering extracting desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean.
Protesters converged on Nestle bottling plants in Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif., on May 20, demanding the company stop its bottling operations during California's historic drought. Starbucks announced May 7 that it would move its Ethos Water production from California to Pennsylvania, citing the drought conditions in the most populous U.S. state.
In Oregon, Nestle approached officials in Cascade Locks, a town of 1,235 along the Columbia River, in 2008 with the idea of opening a bottling plant that would tap water from the city's Oxbow Springs and bottle it under its Arrowhead brand.
Because the city didn't own the rights to the spring water, it had to negotiate an arrangement with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at Oxbow Springs. Under the plan, Cascade Locks is seeking to swap some of its well-water rights for the ability to tap the spring. The Oregon Water Resources Department will issue a preliminary decision on the proposal this summer, spokeswoman Racquel Rancier said.
Lininger and eight other lawmakers sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last month saying the deal circumvents a public-interest review and should be considered carefully in the wake of the drought.
"We question the merit of transferring Oregon's public-water rights so a corporation can bottle and sell our water," the lawmakers said. "As water becomes increasingly scarce and sought-after in the West, we should not enter lightly into a deal to extract it."
Bark, a Portland-based environmental group, is considering filing a lawsuit if the state approves the deal, said Amy Harwood, the group's executive director.
Nestle would have to comply with water restrictions during droughts, David Palais, natural resource manager at Nestle Waters North America Inc., said in a statement.
"We are also concerned about drought and how it affects families, farmers, consumers and businesses," Palais said. "We are committed to being a responsible steward of the water resources we use."
The deal would bring a 250,000-square-foot, $50 million Nestle bottling plant to Cascade Locks, whose unemployment rate is 18.8 percent, said Gordon Zimmerman, the city administrator. It would increase property-tax collections by 67 percent, he said.
"Every city sells water for residential and commercial use," Zimmerman said. "This is no different. It's a city using a resource that it has to generate jobs and economic development."
The city gets 80 inches of rainfall annually and isn't being affected by drought conditions, he said.
That's not the case in other parts of Oregon, where 34 percent of the state is facing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Brown on May 22 declared drought emergencies in eight counties, adding to the seven already designated this year.
"The majority of our state is parched due to the warm winter and lack of snow," Brown said in a statement.
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