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Just Say No to Multinationals? For Rural Communities, It’s Not Always That Simple

Nestle is proposing to gain access to the spring via a water exchange with Cascade Locks.

(Photo: Lance Page / Truthout)

The people of economically depressed Cascade Locks, Oregon, are divided about a proposal by Nestle to go into business with the city to extract spring water from its cherished watershed, bringing jobs and sorely needed revenue.

Nestle Water North America’s makeshift office in Cascade Locks, Oregon, is two doors down from the post office. Most people on their way to get their mail on a rainy Thursday morning at the end of February pass the same tableau, if they bother to look. And they might not have looked, because so many of the storefronts in Cascade Locks are empty these days, have been for years. But framed in one of the twin picture windows of the building he shares with a vacant ice cream parlor is Dave Palais, behind his desk in a plaid shirt, communing diligently with his computer, looking for all the world like a still life and nothing like the storm cloud of multinational doom he could be said to symbolize in certain environmentalist circles.

For a few days every couple of weeks, Palais makes the seven-hour trip from Redding, California, on business for Nestle, where he works as a natural resource manager. Cascade Locks, about 40 miles east of Portland in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, has a lot of natural resources: salmon in the Columbia River (where dams have cut their habitat by more than half), timber on the craggy hills unfolding from Mount Hood 50 miles away, to the cliffs backdropping the town (where the logging industry all but died decades ago) and water that melts off the slopes of the mountain and flows into town in creeks known for their excellent fishing and hiking.

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Palais and the Nestle Company – purveyor of Pellegrino, Perrier and 10 other brands of bottled water – are here for Oxbow Springs, which flows onto a mossy tumble of rocks above a fish hatchery a few miles out of town. But before that water can be sealed in a plastic bottle and slapped with a label (“Arrowhead ® Brand 100% Mountain Spring Water”), there are three legal challenges to face, all compliments of environmental organizations Bark, and Food and Water Watch. The legal hurdles are expected to delay a proposal by the company for two or three years, if they don’t kill it altogether.

The challenges stem from an unconventional proposal that Nestle, the city and the state’s business development agency put to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) back in 2009. Nestle is proposing to gain access to the spring via a water exchange with Cascade Locks. Through the exchange, the city would supply the state hatchery with municipal well water in exchange for about five percent of the spring’s volume, which the city would in turn sell to Nestle.

ODFW tends not to dabble in trade – it’s got its hands full raising the next generation of endangered salmon, for starters – but the state’s former governor said it should go ahead and look into the deal; jobs are jobs, and Cascade Locks needs them. And about that municipal water? Nestle would buy it too, to market under its Pure Life brand. Nothing in the deal has been finalized, and the environmental challenges get pretty technical; suffice it to say that selling public water to a private company is not as popular with conservationists as it is with Nestle, which managed to pull in over $4 billion with its 2010 bottled water sales.

Considering the vocal opposition that has rallied over the years, Palais’ office is remarkably quiet. Maybe that’s because much of the pushback is unfolding silently in briefs being filed before the administrative law judge expected to hear the first challenge in June. And maybe it’s because much of the opposition is from outside Cascade Locks.

Palais says nearly 90 percent of the town’s residents want his company to set up shop here. He admits it’s a ballpark number, and what he says next would sound like standard PR, except that it’s also true: “They’re extremely frustrated that outside activists are trying to control this.” Maybe not everyone, and maybe not 90 percent – but yes, they are. In the words of one local person, “The people who are opponents are from Portland, and that really pisses everybody in this town off.”

Rich in Resources, Economically Poor

Martha La Mont has worked hard to improve the Cascade Locks food bank since she moved to town four years ago from Southern California after retiring from a career in real estate. She’s proud that people can now get milk and eggs with their monthly supplies, and her no-nonsense manner waxes almost ecstatic over a recent donation of olive oil and top-shelf jelly. She’s got plenty of energy left over to say what she thinks of the out-of-towners who oppose the Nestle project. “How about each of you fork over $5,000 a year and then we can take Nestle away?” said La Mont. “We’ve got people here who need food.”

Nestle has been criticized for targeting economically depressed rural communities, and Cascade Locks certainly fits the bill. In the town of about 1,150, the unemployment rate was reported at 16 percent this year. Over 50 families use the local food bank while others travel the 20 interstate miles to another one in more prosperous Hood River. In 2009, fewer than 10 percent of adults had four-year college degrees, less than half of the state average. The municipal government is desperate for revenue. The chief of the city’s fire department resigned in 2011 from his post as the sole paid staff member in the wake of cuts to the department’s budget and his salary; now, a single paramedic does double duty as fire chief while the rest of the department remains volunteer. The city’s museum and youth recreation programs were recently put on indefinite hold. The town’s main street is checker-boarded with empty storefronts. Its volunteer mayor also works as a riverboat captain, park maintenance person and ski lift operator, depending on the season.

Tom Cramblett was elected to the mayoral seat in January after five years on the City Council. He’s lived in Cascade Locks all his life, and he remembers it as a different town before the 1988 closure of the sawmill that sat on part of the oak-dotted swathe of land that is the town’s mostly vacant industrial park, where Nestle would build its bottling plant. The mill closed along with hundreds of others around the country in the wake of new protections for wildlife habitat and was key in funding the city’s power, sewer, water and cable services. Nestle says it would create about 50 jobs, and the city estimates the $50 million bottling plant within a few years would add an estimated $200,000 dollars annually in property tax revenue, along with substantial utility fees, to Cascade Locks’ current budget of $6.5 million.

While Cascade Locks’ dire economic straits may be convenient for Nestle, the town’s draw for the company is also a matter of basic logistics.

“The good spring water is out in the rural regions,” says Palais. At the fish hatchery just below Oxbow Spring where Nestle wants to build its pipeline, fish outnumber people by the hundreds. (The spring also happens to emerge mere feet from the national forest boundary, where Nestle would have been subject to a stricter set of environmental regulations.) It pours from a mossy concrete block in silver ribbons flashing underneath a crown of white spray. Sipped from a cupped hand it tastes slightly metallic and more like air than water. The hatchery is deserted at the lunch hour, and a buzzer sounds across the property in time with the ring of an unattended phone, overtaking the sound of the miniature waterfalls feeding the runways where fish dart back and forth.

Hatcheries can be a divisive topic in conservation circles, where some maintain the operations are a Band-aid for more systemic problems like dams and pollution, and studies have raised questions about genetic viability. But, at least for these fish, they seem to be a good thing. The bigger fish are silver-blue, and they swim fast, scattering and disappearing, turning turquoise when the light is right. The younger ones are a duller color and they move like they’re just waking up, their short bodies barely bending. ODFW says it will only go through with the exchange if it’s best for the fish, and there’s been talk that the swap could supply the agency with extra water in the summer and allow it to raise more sockeye, one of the most stressed species of the embattled salmon populations.

An Easier Place to Raise Fish Than People?

Back in town, Cassie Madrid answers the door with her 1-year-old. The rainbow-lettered banner from his birthday party still hangs behind the television. Marcos Madrid flips through a catalogue, expertly ignoring the dog growling under the couch. He and his wife are hospitable and easygoing, warning visitors to watch their step on the rain-slick ramp up to the entrance of their trailer home. They say raising their children in Cascade Locks has been a slippery prospect, too. Marcos was laid off around the holidays when the pub he worked for came under new ownership, and Cassie, who cooked for two years at the local drive-through and another restaurant across the Columbia River in Washington State, is enrolled in a class for job-seekers.

Marcos loved Cascade Locks when Cassie took him to see where she spent her summers growing up. He’s an ex-gang member, and he liked the idea of raising his kids away from the city life that cut his childhood short. But since the high school closed in 2009, and the middle school followed the next year, graduating elementary school here means an interstate commute to class. Plus there’s that hold on the youth recreation program.

The Madrids say drugs are a problem with young people here in a way they weren’t when Cassie was young, and they blame the lack of opportunities and sheer boredom. Cassie has no qualms about snatching cigarettes straight out of the mouths of other people’s kids when she catches them smoking, but she’s not waiting around for her own to pick up the habit.

The Madrids plan to move as soon as they can. While they’re not exactly apathetic about the Nestle project, their take on the debate, which has risen and fallen in time with the slow march of public meetings since Nestle approached city leaders in 2008, is on the dispassionate side. “I have nothing against it,” Cassie says evenly. If small towns had diplomats, she would make a good one. Bottled water sounds a lot better to her than a casino, another candidate for industry in town that ultimately fell flat, but not before years of false hope for a cash infusion and worries from people like Cassie, who feared it would bring prostitution and a hard-partying clientele.

When her daughter calls from her after-school program, Cassie answers her phone on the first ring; she needs her mom’s help filling in the blanks on her family tree project. Growing up, Cassie says, she only had to go as far as the grocery store to be introduced to another long-lost relative, but things are different now. At least her daughter seems to like the after-school thing, and what kid wouldn’t love to build a robot out of a toothbrush like she did last week? But besides that, “There’s nothing for them to fall back on,” Cassie says, shaking her head for the sake of her own kids and everyone else’s. It’s easy to follow the dismissive wave of her hand out the window, where playing outside looks pretty unappealing as the rain pours down in sheets.

Cascade Locks gets over 75 inches of rain a year. (By comparison, nearby Portland averages 39 inches annually.) The impressive number is not lost on Mayor Cramblett: “What we feel good about is that we have an abundance of water. There’s a lot of places in the world that are hurting for that, and they’re fighting over that.” So as far as the Nestle proposal goes, “We look at it as a way to help people out with their water issues.” Cassie also figures all that water could do some good closer to home. After all, Nestle is already showing its support for the community. At the going-away party she attended for the two women who staffed the suspended youth recreation program, the company made sure everyone had enough bottled water to drink.

In a small town, a little corporate goodwill goes a long way. Martha La Mont says Nestle has donated $3,000 to the food bank in the past two years. In 2009 and 2010, according to a company fact sheet, the company gave $3,500 to the Port of Cascade Locks for a tourism festival, another thousand dollars or so to sailing organizations, plus close to 20,000 bottles of water for local sporting events.

Cause for Skepticism

The company is clearly good for a few grand here and there. But Kate Stuart is not impressed. “All we’re going to get out of this is one large water customer and the taxes,” she says. “I think we should get more from a multinational corporation.”

Stuart moved to town from Sonoma County six years ago. Her group of friends first came together to organize against the casino, and now they have their eye on Nestle.

Stuart is a lively skeptic and the fleece bandana wrapped around her head seems like the only thing holding her features on her face as they dance in time with the argument she’s mapping out at a diner booth overlooking the Columbia River.

The waterway is basically an interstate for barges and the trains that run on the banks on both sides, but from this height it’s easy to imagine it’s pristine.

“I have breast cancer, so I obviously have a reason not to like plastic,” says Stuart. But the fact that the illness she’s spent nine years battling has been linked to certain plastics by some studies is more of an addendum to another concern: “I don’t like water leaving watersheds.”

The Oregon law placing strict limitations on removing state waters from their basin of origin acknowledges that messing with a natural water network can be risky for ecosystems. Now environmental groups say the state is endangering the Herman Creek watershed that feeds both Oxbow Spring and the municipal well.

“We don’t know what a sustainable long-term withdrawal [from the municipal well] looks like for Cascade Locks,” says Food & Water Watch’s Julia DeGraw. She said the amount of well water Nestle plans to pump was even redacted from the documents the government provided in response to a public records request about the proposal. Without more details, who knows? If the aquifer is drained too low, says DeGraw, “the Columbia could infiltrate the groundwater system.”

As far as the spring water, DeGraw says the swap would set a “dangerous precedent” by creating a “de facto partnership” between the state and Nestle. ODFW makes a point of emphasizing that its agreement to consider trading water with Cascade Locks is between the two governments and does not include Nestle. But DeGraw isn’t swayed by the technicality; ultimately, she says, the deal would “give away public water resources for a water bottling company’s gain.”

In the inexact science of local word of mouth, the pro- and anti-Nestle camps split down a line between dyed-in-the wool old-timers and relative newcomers like Stuart. But on the subject of kids, she doesn’t sound that different from Cassie Madrid. She has a protective streak, and she makes a point of keeping friendly tabs on the young people in town. “It makes me feel like everybody’s kids are just a little bit of mine,” she says, her eyes for once leaving her notebook to look down at the river. “I don’t know what we’re going to leave them.”

Privatizing Water on a Warming Planet

Olivia Schmidt with Bark, the organization joining Food & Water Watch on the legal challenges to the water swap and the wider campaign against Nestle, shares Stuart’s concern. “Selling off access to clean water resources is absolutely not what we need to be doing from a public policy perspective at a time when we have begun to feel the effects of climate change in the Pacific Northwest,” says Schmidt. “That’s like a small island in the South Pacific saying, ‘Well, the water isn’t drowning us now, so we’re going to be fine forever’ – and now those communities are all climate refugees. It’s irresponsible to be looking at what’s happening right now without looking at the population growth that’s going to be happening in this area because of this climate change.” A 2012 report by Oregon’s transportation agency acknowledged that some of the state’s projected population increase is expected to come from people fleeing areas more vulnerable to drought and other climate change impacts.

But some things have a way of focusing the mind on surviving the present, and poverty and unemployment make the top of the list. Palais says bottling plant jobs will pay in the upper half of the wage scale for similar jobs in the region. That sounds good to Debbie Gunter. Her husband has been out of work for two years since he was laid off from his job at Wal-Mart in a Portland suburb about 40 miles away, where he worked the 3-to-11 shift and got home around 1 AM. That was hard, and then gas prices went up. And Gunter is a little more familiar than she’d like to be with the city’s funding challenges. A health problem caught up with her during a gap in emergency services that followed the fire chief’s resignation. Despite her medication and a new Jazzercise regimen, she found herself in need of an ambulance. The closest one took 45 minutes to get to her from across the river in Washington. Gunter says she almost died. These days, the Gunters are considering a move to Portland.

People stay in Cascade Locks for a reason. Property is relatively cheap, and the landscape is stunning. The river has earned a reputation as a world-class sailing destination, and a hiking trail that stretches from the Mexican border all the way to Canada runs right through town. The Outdoor Industry Foundation estimates that outdoor recreation contributes $4.6 billion in revenue via retail and service statewide and supports 73,000 Oregon jobs, but Cascade Locks isn’t seeing enough of that money. The town’s tourism council is trying to change that, but efforts like a new mountain biking trail and extending the beach near the sailing club are works in progress with no clear payoff yet. “Things are getting tougher here; it’s not getting better,” says La Mont. “I think too many people were planning on that casino.” So maybe it’s not surprising that the campaign groups like Bark and Food & Water Watch are waging against Nestle is regarded with some suspicion. “It becomes a fundraiser for them just as the casino became a fundraiser for organizations that didn’t like casinos,” says Cramblett.

Bark and Food & Water Watch both say that’s not true. (In fact, Bark’s internal bylaws forbid taking public positions solely for fundraising purposes.) And while Food & Water Watch might not be putting 50 jobs on the table, DeGraw says her organization does have something to offer low-income communities. “In Oregon and throughout the US, we have been very involved in the movement to increase public investment in water infrastructure, which benefits low-income consumers who are often hit the hardest when water systems fall into disrepair and who often cannot afford the very water that’s being pumped from the ground and sold back to consumers at an exorbitant markup.” Nestle says most of its bottled water is sold in multipacks that pencil out to about 22 cents a bottle, but the company has come under fire for trying to strike deals like one that ultimately failed in McCloud, California, in which it would have bought water for .000081 cents per gallon.

Cascade Locks officials are still poring over science and case studies while they wait for the state side of the deal to shake out. “I admit Nestle is one of those things that to us seems like a no-brainer, but obviously in this world, nothing’s a no-brainer anymore,” says Cramblett. “We’re trying to attract people but it seems like every time we attract somebody, it’s the wrong person.”

His words go to the heart of the struggle of many rural and small town communities, which must often choose between welcoming a corporate giant in exchange for modest or meager jobs or fighting an increasingly difficult battle to survive. Cramblett’s father was a hunter, trapper and fisherman from Cascade Locks; he even foraged for cascara bark, an ingredient in natural medicine. There’s nothing new about counting on the land for a living in a place like this, but in a globalized era, the line between subsistence and exploitation has come into sharper focus – even for those who would rather look away. (That isn’t lost on Nestle: The glossy info packets overflowing the table at the front of Palais’ office are an object lesson in sustainability-as-selling-point: “Our second generation Eco-Shape bottle uses 25 percent less plastic than the previous Eco-shape bottle”; “The amount we use is far less than the water needed to produce other beverages, such as beer and soft drinks.”)

But Schmidt is not convinced. “When white settlers came into the Pacific Northwest, it was really well-forested, and now, it’s not,” she says. “If our policymakers are subsidizing this kind of extractive development, we need them to shift; we need them to focus on other things than making it easier to take our resources,” she says. “Part of getting us as a global community moving toward that direction is being a stopgap toward extraction.”

By the time that shift has had time to play out in Cascade Locks, the Madrids and the Gunters might be long gone.

This article has been amended to reflect the correct estimate of property tax revenue the proposed bottling plant would generate for the City of Cascade Locks and the correct figure for the city’s total budget.

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