By Stephyn Quirke
Local opponents of a controversial water deal have won important allies in the past few months, threatening a multi-million dollar deal for Switzerland-based Nestle.
In a renewed effort to transfer public water to Nestle’s Arrowhead brand, the city of Cascade Locks and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) announced on April 10 that they had applied to swap water rights in the absence of a public interest review. If successful, the transfer would allow Cascade Locks to sell spring water from Oxbow Spring to Nestle, re-directing spring water from a salmon hatchery, as well as from a cold water refuge for migrating salmon.
Migrating sockeye salmon in the Columbia River experienced an unprecedented death-rate this summer after water temperatures exceeded 72 degrees. Experts from ODFW estimated at least a quarter million salmon (at least half the run) had died.
When word of this new legal maneuver spread, tribal members from the Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes began organizing and coming out strongly against the water transfer. Tribal members say the deal would privatize a key public resource, and violate their inherent right to fish a healthy salmon run – a right which pre-existed the United States, and was guaranteed to them in treaties with the US dating back to 1855.
In May, the Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown objecting to the water rights transfer, observing that “water quantity and quality and hatchery operations are of paramount importance to ongoing treaty-based rights of the Tribe in the Columbia River area and to ongoing federal litigation.”
When no one responded to the letter, Anna Mae Leonard, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, began a five day hunger strike on August 17, directly across the street from City Hall in Cascade Locks. Leonard consumed no food or water for five days, except for two sips of water from Oxbow Springs, which is sacred to Natives of the region.
“I am suffering here for only five days,” she said in a statement. “I am suffering because this is how it will be for our precious salmon and all of life within the river – all plant life, animal life. We will all suffer and die without water.”
On June 24, Hood River County Commissioners unanimously asked the Governor to declare a drought in all of Hood River County, including Cascade Locks. In September KGW reported an analysis that ranked Oregon as the driest state in the country, with 67.3% of the state in extreme drought conditions.
“It goes against our beliefs to sell water – this is common knowledge among native people,” says Klairice Westley, co-founder of Wanapum Fishing People Against Nestle, which represents four federally-recognized tribes along the Columbia River.
Westley is local to Cascade Locks, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. She says she is against the water swap because “water is a human right, and making it a commodity is unethical. It’s just wrong.”
According to Westley, the water deal may also violate the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act – a point she says is reinforced by an official letter sent to the Governor by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. “All our longhouse people know that this specific spring is an integral part of our traditional longhouse spiritual practices – specific to this area,” Westley said. “That is why the Grand Ronde tribal council has told the Governor this is a sensitive cultural site that needs protection.”
“A spokesperson for the Local Water Alliance, Aurora Del Val, says that government agencies have failed to respect the sovereignty of Native American tribes in approaching this deal, and have also failed to consider the public’s interest. “If Nestle establishes their foothold here in Cascade Locks, they will likely do what they have done in Colorado–seek out, extract and truck water from nearby sources in Hood River County. Our local and state elected officials have failed us, but we trust that county residents will do the right thing by passing the Hood River Water Protection Measure to secure our water supply for families, farms, and fish.”
According to Wanapum Fishing People Against Nestle, there has still been no acknowledgement from either state or local agencies that a letter of protest was submitted by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.”
Elected officials in Cascade Locks have often cited high unemployment to make their case for Nestle, but according to Klairice Westley, the neighboring community of Warm Springs has a 70% unemployment rate, and its people rely on fishing for both their culture and their livelihoods.
“Klarice Westley, a spokesperson for Wanapum Fishing People Against Nestle, explains that “before our fishermen sell the fish, first they have to fill up the longhouses from all four tribes – to make sure there are enough salmon for our spiritual practices throughout the year – our pow-wows, our name-giving ceremonies, our memorials, our funerals… It’s not just about making money. That water is for all of life – nothing can live without that water. “
“Our city council and Port have been very disrespectful in their relations with tribal members. They have sovereign governments that need to be acknowledged and respected. To date, there has been no public acknowledgement of the letter of protest sent from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs to Governor Brown, which was shared with the city council of Cascade Locks. This is unacceptable.”
On September 16, the anti-Nestle coalition was joined by numerous tribal leaders to protest the transfer of water rights in Salem, including Chief Johnny Jackson of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Warm Springs Tribal Council Chairman E. Austin Greene, who sent a letter to the Governor back in May.
According to opponents, this water deal would represent a first-of-its-kind legal deal wherein a state agency relinquishes water it had previously designated for another purpose in order to accommodate a for-profit water business – with no review of how the public interest is affected.
To confront such a uniquely complex deal, the founders of the Local Water Alliance in Hood River County are pushing for an equally-unprecedented ballot measure, which states “no person shall in any way transport or convey water from any water source within the County in order to support a commercial bottled water operation.”
“On the morning of October 27th, the Local Water Alliance announced that their ballot measure was approved for circulation by Hood River County officials. The Alliance will need just over 400 valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and Del Val says they will be shooting for at least 2,000. The Alliance says this will be the first law in the country that bans the export of bottled water, which they hope will inspire other localities to protect their water from outside corporations.
Nestle drew heavy criticism this summer when it was revealed that their bottled water operations in California had been totally unaffected by the state’s unprecedented drought – at the same time the Governor was asking families not to flush their toilets.
In an interview with Southern California Public Radio, Nestle Waters CEO Tim Brown said “We feel good about what we’re doing,” adding “If I could increase it, I would.”
Earlier this year, it was also revealed that Nestle has been extracting water from California’s San Bernardino National Forest under a special use permit that expired in 1988. On October 13, a lawsuit was filed against the Forest Service to prevent any further water extraction, citing the potential damage to the dry forest surrounding Nestle’s points of extraction. The Courage Campaign has also petitioned the state Water Resources Control Board to stop all of Nestle’s bottling operations statewide.
“I don’t think our town is equipped to handle a scenario where Nestle over-pumps water outside of their permits,” says Aurora Del Val.
Courtney Rae, community organizer with the Portland watchdog group Bark, is encouraging people to support the grassroots efforts of Del Val, as well as the area’s tribal groups who are standing up for their water.
“Bark is inspired by the Wanapum Fishing People against Nestlé,” she said. “The powerful grassroots organizing they are doing continues to strengthen the public resistance – from Cascade Locks all the way to the steps of the state capitol. We are honored to be present in this fight and to support this revolutionary work.”
Want to support the fight against Nestle? Contact Wanapum Fishing People Against Nestle at email@example.com, or call 503.913.5602. Donations and t-shirt purchases are welcome!
You can also donate time and money to the Local Water Alliance through their website, www.localwateralliance.org.
Editor’s note: After the last article about the Nestlé water deal appeared in the May edition of The Southeast Examiner, communications were received from the Nestlé-contracted Public Relations firm APCO worldwide. The Southeast Examiner was asked not to refer to the water targeted by Nestle as “public water”.