SWITZERLAND-BASED NESTLÉ is no stranger to bad PR.
In the 1970s, the company faced massive boycotts following accusations it promoted bottle-feeding and discouraged breastfeeding, causing infant malnutrition and death in poor communities. "Nestlé Toten Babies" (translation: "Nestlé Kills Babies") claimed one Swiss report at the time.
Infanticide is the worst of the charges, but Nestlé has also been accused, at various times, of killing dogs, feeding horses to people, peddling junk food to indigenous tribes in the Amazon, and, most concerning for the Pacific Northwest, being a terrible steward of water supplies.
In March, a Palm Springs newspaper called out the company for taking millions of gallons of water each year from a spring in the San Bernardino National Forest—and profiting mightily from selling it—even though its permit to do so expired in 1988.
Nestlé's tried over the last several years to build bottling facilities in McCloud, California, and in Enumclaw and Orting, Washington. It's failed, in part, because of public disapproval.
Now, Nestlé wants to put its drinking straws in the Columbia River Gorge, and it looks like it might succeed.
The mega corporation has been gunning for Oregon spring water for six years now, hoping to siphon 100 million gallons a year out of the gorge's Oxbow Springs, pipe it to a 250,000-square-foot bottling facility the company plans to build in Cascade Locks—a town of about 1,100 located 40 miles east of Portland—and ship it out in 100 semi truck loads every day.
The deal's backers got a new ally in January, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) approved a complex deal that would grant Nestlé access to Oxbow Springs water—currently under ODFW jurisdiction—in exchange for an equal amount of Cascade Locks' municipal groundwater. But the company's spotty stewardship of resources in other areas has citizens, environmentalists, and legislators concerned about inviting it in.
"We are going to face the disruption of the water supply in the Pacific Northwest," says Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer. "We don't have enough water to support wildlife, industry, and human need. We need to be extraordinarily careful."
The water Nestlé wants gushes from the side of a mossy hill in a lush, forested area just upslope from the Oxbow Fish Hatchery. It's a peaceful scene, but the fight over the water is real. Environmental watchdog groups like Portland-based Bark have battled for years to keep Nestlé out, while the town of Cascade Locks can't wait for the company to arrive.
"Are they evil? Well, maybe in the '50s when they killed those babies, but as far as I can tell, and from what they told me, they're looking for ways to make 100 percent biodegradable bottles," says City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman. "Why stifle the economic prosperity of this community when the amount of plastic from this plant would be such a small portion of all the plastics that end up on the beach?"
Zimmerman's not the only one cheering on the plant's arrival.
The former logging town, which Zimmerman says has 19 percent unemployment, has struggled economically since the timber industry atrophied at the end of the last century.
"If we could teach everybody to live without jobs, we'd be okay," says Cascade Locks Mayor Tom Cramblett. "But we need jobs, so corporations are going to come in and make jobs. They want our water and it's ours to give to them."
On Saturday, May 2, Cramblett joined a group of about 40 protesters who visited the springs for a peaceful rally. He answered questions patiently, and listened while opponents made their arguments. But he wasn't swayed.
"It's always raining here, so if we're ever in a drought situation, then the whole world's burning up," says Zimmerman. "What we've got is water, what we need is jobs. We are in survival mode, and this is an opportunity."
It's the fourth straight year of drought in Oregon. So far in 2015, Governor Kate Brown has declared emergencies in seven counties. But in Cascade Locks—the state's second-rainiest town, according to Zimmerman—it might feel like there's a never-ending supply of water. Activists say there's not.
Dawn Smallman, a Portland producer for the EcoFilm Festival, attended the Saturday protest, and says allowing a corporation access to Oxbow Springs is a shortsighted plan.
"Anyone who is willing to give away their autonomy on water control at this point in history is not thinking with a clear head," Smallman says. "There's a legacy in these small towns of not being able to envision profit off of anything other than industry, and that has to change."
One thing that has recently changed is the method by which Nestlé and Cascade Locks are looking to partner up. As part of the water-swap plan between Cascade Locks and ODFW, Nestlé may be able to get at the water without a public interest review—a plan that's got people concerned.
On April 23, nine Oregon lawmakers, including Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), sent a letter to Gov. Brown urging her to require a public interest review on the project.
"We question the merit of transferring Oregon's public water rights so a corporation can bottle and sell our water," the letter reads. "Nestlé is pumping millions of gallons of water out of Sacramento, California, during that state's historic drought crisis.... As water becomes increasingly scarce and sought after in the West, we should not enter lightly into a deal to extract it."
Bark's departing executive director, Alex Brown, claims that since the new governor took office in February, opponents have sent more than 5,000 letters to her office protesting the plant.
"Governor Brown is faced with what should be a no-brainer decision not to partner with an international company that has a horrible reputation so it can take our water and sell it in plastic bottles," Brown says.
Melissa Navas, a spokesperson for Brown's office, says the governor instructed ODFW to meet with the nine legislators who signed the letter to discuss their concerns. She did not say whether the governor supported the proposed water swap.
Blumenauer, at least, agrees that Nestlé's intentions aren't as pure as the spring water they're trying to get.
"This is one of the decisions we always face, and we can't take the easy route on the environment," Blumenauer says. "You can't exploit precious natural resources for a quick return. It's a slippery slope."