Blue yard signs bearing the words “Yes on 14-55: Our Water, Our Future” dotted lawns throughout Hood River County, Oregon, in the run-up to the primary election held on May 17. Just as many of these signs appeared to share a lawn with a Cruz or Trump yard sign as with a Clinton or Sanders sign.
The issue that brought conservatives and progressives together in this way was clear-cut: keeping Nestlé Waters North America from building a water bottling plant and extracting over 118 million gallons annually from a spring in a small, rural community 45 miles east of Portland.
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“We needed to act. It was our moment.”
When Primary Day came, Oregon voters in Hood River County passed a first-of-its-kind ballot measure that bans the production and transportation of large-scale commercial bottled water within the county. The measure succeeded by an overwhelming majority of voters — 68.8 percent voted in favor — and effectively ended Nestlé’s attempts to operate within the community.
“We couldn’t have done it without bipartisan support,” said Julia DeGraw, the senior northwest organizer with Food and Water Watch, who has been working on this issue for the past seven years. “This is the definition of bipartisan support.”
The passage of the ballot initiative is a huge blow to Nestlé and comes at a time when the bottled water industry is coming under more and more scrutiny from the public as the nation experiences severe drought and increasing water scarcity.
“It Was Our Moment”
Since 2008, Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, has attempted to make Cascade Locks, Oregon, the location of its first water extraction and bottling plant in the Northwest. Nestlé already taps into 50 springs across the United States but doesn’t currently have a source of spring water in the Pacific Northwest. As a result, in order to reach consumers in that region, the company has to send trucks of bottled water up from California.
As recently reported in Truthout, bottled water is big business and getting bigger every year:
According to the International Bottled Water Association, the leading industry lobbying group, in 2013, Americans drank over 10 billion gallons of bottled water, generating $12.3 billion in revenue for beverage companies. This amount was more than double the revenue recorded in 2000. Americans spent $18.82 billion in 2014 purchasing what comes, basically free, out of the tap.
Nestlé is continually looking to secure new sources of water to meet growing demand. In Cascade Locks, Nestlé proposed to extract over 118 million gallons of water per year, bottle it and sell the water to customers throughout the Northwest under the Arrowhead brand. The company also proposed bottling millions of additional gallons of municipal water from the city under its Pure Life brand.
Its attempts to build the $50 million bottling plant and extraction operation occurred during a time when Oregonians, along with most other Westerners, were becoming more and more aware of water scarcity issues because of unprecedented droughts exacerbated by climate change.
Nestlé’s proposal sparked opposition and protests at every step. Opponents to the proposal objected to it on numerous grounds, including potential impacts to farmers, fish and people. Tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Warm Springs Tribes, expressed opposition to the plan citing their treaty-protected fishing rights.
“I just feel like we moved mountains. The overwhelming response I got was thank you, thank you for protecting our water.”
And, despite the near-unanimous support and cooperation of local and state officials, activists held the company at a standstill for almost eight years. Nestlé, frustrated by the amount of time it was taking for the city of Cascade Locks to obtain the water from the state of Oregon, changed tactics. Instead of trading water, the city and state officials moved to get an agreement that would permanently trade water rights. The change would avoid a lengthy public interest review process.
At this point, opponents of Nestlé’s project felt they had no other choice but to put the issue to a vote. The ballot initiative was started by Cascade Locks residents who were fed up with the local and state leaders who seemed impervious to their concerns.
“We were frustrated by Nestlé’s tactics such as working on the local and state officials and currying their favor,” said Aurora del Val, the campaign director for the Local Water Alliance, the community group formed to pass the ballot measure. “Meanwhile, the citizens, our questions and our concerns, weren’t listened to in a real meaningful way. That’s what led us to this moment.”
When Hood River County residents decided to do this in 2015, the county was experiencing severe drought and water restrictions that were damaging the agricultural sector, which is the main economic driver in the county. Snowpack conditions throughout Oregon averaged less than 7 percent of normal that year, and statewide average precipitation was less than 87 percent of normal.
“We needed to act. It was our moment,” del Val told Truthout.
On September 11, 2015, the Local Water Alliance, with help from Food and Water Watch, filed a ballot measure petition for the Hood River County Water Protection Measure with the “goal of ensuring a long-term water supply for our county’s families, farms and fish.” The ballot initiative language would amend the county charter to prohibit any business from producing and transporting 1,000 or more gallons of bottled water per day for commercial sale.
In early December 2015, volunteers turned in 1,600 signatures, which was equivalent to 13 percent of all registered voters in the county and three times the number required to qualify a local ballot measure.
Then they began talking to voters. Del Val and dozens of volunteers hit the streets and started knocking on doors talking to people about Nestlé’s proposal for the community. They knew that in such a small community the most important work would be talking to neighbors face to face.
“We pulled out the stops. This was volunteer driven, and they were all incredible and made huge sacrifices to do it. I just feel like we moved mountains. The overwhelming response I got was thank you, thank you for protecting our water.” Del Val told Truthout. “It didn’t matter what your political viewpoints were — people care about water.”
“It didn’t matter what your political viewpoints were — people care about water.”
On March 9, 2016, about two months before the vote, a pro-Nestlé group opposed to the ballot measure called the Coalition for a Strong Gorge Economy registered with the Oregon secretary of state. The group brought on Rebecca Tweed, a well-known Portland area political consultant and lobbyist. Nestlé funded the political action committee to the tune of $105,000.
DeGraw and del Val told Truthout they believe that Nestlé was trying to hide its funding of the opposition and allege that it did not report the money it spent or in-kind contributions of staff time, both of which are against Oregon’s campaign finance laws.
When reached for comment by Truthout regarding the allegations that Nestlé broke Oregon’s campaign finance laws, Jane Lazgin from Nestlé Corporate Affairs responded by email, stating that “all contributions made by Nestle Waters to the International Bottled Water Association in support of the vote no to measure 14-55 campaign were publicly reported in accordance with Oregon election law.”
In a press statement after the vote, Dave Palais, the North American regional manager for Nestlé Waters, said, “While we firmly believe this decision on a county primary ballot is not in the best interest of Cascade Locks, we respect the democratic process.”
Although DeGraw and del Val were dismayed at the amount of money they were up against, along with the last-minute onslaught from the opposition PAC, they weren’t too worried that it would sway voters.
“Wherever Nestlé goes, we will follow with our cameras and turn up the volume. They can’t work in the shadows anymore.”
“The opposition spent $105,000 that really didn’t come out until the last minute, in terms of campaign reporting. But it didn’t matter because by the time they sent out those glossy mailers to voters, we had already spoken to every single voter, numerous times. If we hadn’t done that legwork, if we hadn’t prepared voters for misinformation that was coming, we wouldn’t have had 70 percent of voters supporting the ballot initiative. That work was crucial,” DeGraw told Truthout.
Del Val from Local Water Alliance agreed.
“We had a team of volunteers that made phone calls, knocked on doors, got blisters on their feet. People got it. It didn’t matter what party that person belonged to. It was that level of humanity that made all the difference.”
Del Val and the other organizers knew that taking this issue to the voters was the way to finally beat Nestlé.
“People all over are tracking this like a hawk and there are communities that have been fighting Nestlé for decades. A lot of these communities feel like … [there is] nothing they can do to protect their water; they feel disempowered. This helps inspire people. It is important that we won by such a large margin, because we not only showed it was possible but it was possible to win big in a conservative rural district,” del Val told Truthout.
In a county with just over 12,300 registered voters, there were 8,235 ballots cast with 5,524 people voting in favor of 14-55. Volunteers talked to almost every voter.
A Transformative Success
Opponents of Nestlé believe the passage of the ballot measure is perhaps the most significant win in the fight against water privatization in the United States. Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns for the Story of Stuff — a nonprofit organization that coalesced around a 20-minute movie about the production and discarding of material objects in our lives and that tracks Nestlé’s water extraction projects nationwide — is making sure to elevate the fight at Cascade Locks, Oregon, so that communities throughout the country learn about how a small community beat one of the biggest corporations in the world.
“They have worked in the shadows for years, but they can’t do this anymore. Nestlé can’t exploit a small town without the world hearing about it,” Wilson said. He believes this tactic will spread.
“The people in Cascade Locks figured out a really smart, elegant mechanism to stop Nestlé. It is precedent setting. People will bring it to the ballot and the people are gonna win. They will pass it from county to county to county. It will spread like wildfire.”
At first, del Val didn’t realize that the fight she and her community were fighting against Nestlé had such a global reach.
“The scale didn’t really occur to me. When the Story of Stuff came out to our community and told us that they were taking our story and connecting the dots to the stories in other communities and showing how there is a pattern, I think at that point, I started understanding the ripple effects and the power of this campaign,” she said. “It inspired me. I got phone calls from across the country and from all over the world. People gave an outpouring of support. People told me, ‘You replace Cascade Locks with my town and that is what is happening here.’ There was a profound effect to this campaign.”
Wilson believes this is just the beginning.
“People who feel connected to other communities fighting the same thing feel more comfortable speaking out and confident that they can win,” Wilson said. “We can amplify the fight and be the connective force between communities.” Wilson explained that drawing these connections enables people in different locations to feel like they are a part of a unified movement against the privatization and commodification of water.
“Wherever Nestlé goes, we will follow with our cameras and turn up the volume,” Wilson said. “They can’t work in the shadows anymore. This ballot win was a transformative success.”