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  • The bottled water monster takes over Seattle
Aah, water. Nature's Gatorade. The stuff of life. With the recent kerfuffle about bioswales and mounting opposition to bottled water, it's an interesting time to ponder the future of our water supply.

A symposium coming up this weekend at the University of Portland focuses on water rights as a social justice issue. We all depend on water, and many see access to water as a basic human rights... but what happens when private companies start doling it out?

I spoke with Nancy Matela, a representative with Food and Water Watch who helped organize the symposium, about some of the issues facing water use around Portland.

So why did you decide to host this symposium?

Water will increasingly become a bigger and bigger issue, and it's ultimately a social justice issue because the more money we spend on private sources of water, the less money is available to maintain [public] infrastructure. The University of Portland is known for its social justice work, so we got together and said, "We have a common interest here."

More after the jump.

Portland has recently been told by the EPA that it needs to cover all of its reservoirs, and possibly treat or filter the water. What does this mean for our future?

"We [at Food and Water Watch] are desperately trying to keep Portland’s water in public hands. The more we have to do filtration, cover the reservoirs, and other extremely expensive projects, the greater the cost that will fall on the ratepayers. The more indebted we are, the more likely that private companies will step in. Water in Portland is going to double in price in the next four years."

You've been an outspoken opponent of bottled water. What's so bad about it?

"There are three things wrong with bottled water. First, it's an environmental disaster. A quarter cup of oil is used to produce every liter-sized bottle. For ten minutes of convenience, we have a product that will stay in our environment for many lifetimes. Less than 15% of water bottles worldwide are recycled.

"Second, it's a health hazard: 40% of bottled water has been proven to be tap water. Water absorbs the chemicals from the plastics. PET (the most commonly used material) will leach carcinogenic chemicals into the water over time, especially when heated.

"Third, the cost. Generally speaking, water is .2 cents per gallon from municipal sources. But when you buy it bottled, you're paying $1.00-$1.50 every time."

You've opposed the Nestle corporation's plan to build a bottling plant in Cascade Locks, 40 miles east of Portland. What's going on there?

"In December, a Nestle lawyer approached the Cascade Locks city council. He said, 'we'll build a regional plant, and bring you 4 dozen jobs.' But those jobs weren't promised to locals. I don’t know how many council members are pro and con at this point. The majority of citizens are for Nestle, because they want the jobs. Cascade Locks is a former timber town, and just lost its high school last year.

"However, spring water rights there are owned by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to supply its fish hatchery. They raise various types of salmon that are used to stock rivers in the Northwest. Nestle wanted to trade water rights, so they'd get the spring water and the hatchery would use groundwater from wells. Now they're taking a year to see if the fish can survive in the well water. So far, they're doing fine. Ultimately, the Oregon Water Resource Department will make the decision on whether the water rights can be exchanged."

Why would this be a bad deal?

"Setting aside bottled water issue, you’ve got the whole big question of the aquifers (underground lakes) in Cascade Locks. Most of Oregon’s aquifers are not mapped. We don’t know how big this one is or where it extends. We do know that if spring water, which is very cold, is taken out of the creeks, it will change the temperature of Columbia River. Salmon rely heavily on cool spots within the Columbia to rest as they go up and down the river. But over the long term? We don't have a clue what the effect will be."

At the symposium, Matela will be introducing state Attorney General John Kroger, who in turn will introduce her organization's featured speaker. She'll also be moderating a panel.