Photos and words by David Hanson
In the small, working class town of Cascade Locks in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the Bridge of the Gods. There’s a small grocery, burger and shake shack, post office, a weathered inn, waterfront brewery, a fish hatchery, and a modest lumber mill. And since 2008, there’s also been a small storefront occupied by a Nestlé-paid geologist. His job? Sell the community on the idea of tapping nearby Oxbow Spring and building a bottled water plant.
This was not Nestlé’s first rodeo. The multi-national corporation has grown accustomed to local resistance, with recent water fights in Ontario, British Columbia, Florida, Michigan, and California. As consumers continue to demand bottled water and droughts simultaneously wreak havoc on water resources, the stakes are only rising. Water, as any westerner knows, is money.
But in the Gorge, a successful anti-Nestlé petition pushed the debate to a countywide ballot measure. On May 17, Nestlé lost, with the county voting to ban bottling more than 1,000 gallons/day from any Hood River County water source including Oxbow Spring—considered sacred by the local Umatilla tribe. David slayed Goliath. At least that’s how it seems.
A little more than 23,000 people live in rural Hood River County, mostly concentrated in the towns of Hood River, Parkdale, Odell, and Cascade Locks. Countywide, 70 percent voted in favor of the water ban. But Cascade Locks only voted 58 percent against it. There is a bit of a red-state/blue-state dynamic at play between Cascade Lock’s blue-collar demographic and Hood River’s affluent, outdoors-oriented population. “We were looking at 50 new jobs in a town of 1,200 with 19 percent unemployment,” says Gordon Zimmerman, Cascade Locks City Administrator. “We understand that Hood River County is basically liberal and we knew they’d be attracted by the local water alliance [against Nestlé].”
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper, has the counter argument: “Nestlé was painting this picture that Cascade Locks was overwhelmingly in favor of [the bottling plant],” he says. But, VandenHeuvel adds, “From working up and down the Columbia with rural and urban communities, I’ve learned that people are fiercely protective of their resources.”
Still, the fight may not be over: Nestlé can sue to overturn the ban. And the city of Cascade Locks, which supports the plant, is researching legal precedents in cases that have prohibited county charters from overriding city charters.
Ultimately though, Mother Nature could have the final say. Last year’s drought led to a massive salmon die-off and water restrictions for farmers in the Gorge. If that trend continues this summer, there will be an even louder voice advocating for conserving Columbia River Gorge water.