We come from the water.
When the oceans first formed, so, too, did our most distant predecessors. They arose from the ancestral oceans in blossoming waves of evolution: bacterium, and then lobe-finned fish, and then the first creatures with legs.
Water is the giver of life. Everything we depend on is nourished by water as it rotates from air, to earth, to rivers, and to oceans. Earth is distinct for this very reason—when scientists look for potentially habitable planets, they look first for water.
In the Pacific Northwest, we’re lucky to be surrounded by streams, rivers, and the steady exhale of winter rain. The damp soil of coastal forests, whose conifers are wrapped silkily in fog, seem to indicate reserves of water that are inexhaustible; hoards and sheets of water that are blissfully and—to one in the middle of a dark-clouded winter, somewhat irritably—never-ending. But, as we have seen this year, even in the Pacific Northwest, water has its limits.
An unusually warm winter has left Mt. Hood’s summer face painfully bruised by lack of snow. Snowmelt streams have gone unreplenished. Scarce rain has led to scarred, exposed riverbanks, and waterless desolation in places like Detroit Lake. Fish have died in record numbers. Relentless 90-degree days turned our usually crisp streams and rivers into inhospitable swales. Increased temperatures and fewer fish have resulted in wide-spanning ecological repercussions, including mass bird die-offs.
Wildlife has also struggled with habitat loss caused by devastating wildfires. Acres and acres of ponderosa pine, desert scrubland, and mountain forest have burned. The crisis is so dire that fire fighters from as far away as Australia have been asked to come to our aid.
This uncharacteristic confluence of drought, hot weather, and wildfires will most likely be repeated in the years to come. Climate change will alter weather patterns, and the Pacific Northwest will become drier and hotter. Water has always been precious, but it’s about to become even more so as its rarity increases.
At a time when we should be adopting new methods of water conservation, in comes Nestlé. The multinational corporation hopes to sell water from Oxbow Springs, located in a quiet hillside of the Columbia Gorge.
Is it fair for water to be commodified? At Oxbow Springs, the water bubbles over rocks and moss. It belongs to everyone and no one, a public resource owned by the state. Nestlé wants to encase this water in plastic bottles slathered with “Arrowhead” labels and sell them back to us for an outrageous profit. They want to take what is free, what is precious, what sustains us and the other animals and all the life on Earth, and make it a product. They have done so in drought-dried places like California’s San Bernardino Mountains. There, Nestlé operates under a public-lands permit (cost: $524 per year) which expired 27 years ago. The same governmental negligence that allows them to operate without a valid permit also allows them to continue processes even as droughts have reached hazardous intensity. When asked if Nestlé would slow operations in response to California’s drought, Nestlé Waters North American CEO Tim Brown said, “Absolutely not. In fact, if I could increase it, I would.”
Julia DeGraw, Northwest Organizer of Food & Water Watch, is working to stop Nestlé before the corporation plants its seed and spreads out to our other waterways like a parasitic vine. “If you look at Nestlé’s track record in places like Colorado, Michigan, and Maine, once the company opens up shop it begins to truck water from neighboring springs in the region,” DeGraw said. “It is highly unlikely that Nestlé’s end game in the Gorge is to only bottle 118 million gallons of spring water a year from Oxbow Springs.”
With no heed for anything but profit, Nestlé will take and take, moving on to privately owned springs once public waters are ravaged. Communities will receive nothing in return—except for the selected few.
Most people have never been to Cascade Locks—a tiny town whose claims to fame include their namesake locks system and the Bridge of the Gods, which hikers cross over when venturing along the Pacific Crest Trail. A shortage of jobs has led to a diminishing population; there are so few residents that the schools have closed down for lack of students, and the remaining children are shipped to schools in Hood River. A few years ago, plans for a casino kindled job-creation hopes, but the casino didn’t happen, and Cascade Lockians were left discouraged. So when Nestlé offered the city a paycheck, tax money, and bottling plant jobs in exchange for access to a seemingly plentiful resource, the city council accepted. They intend to invest the profit in city renewal projects to spur the local economy.
Cascade Locks teamed up with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to make a water rights trade agreement. As of now, the ODFW has the right to Oxbow Springs, and Cascade Locks has the rights to Herman Creek Aquifer. Per the agreement, for every 0.5 cubic feet per second of Oxbow Springs water Cascade Locks sells to Nestlé, ODFW is due to receive an equal amount of water from the Herman Creek aquifer. That way Cascade Locks will gain the rights to Oxbow Springs and can do with it as they wish—such as sell the water to Nestlé.
But they can still be stopped. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have made their case to the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD), Governor Kate Brown, and the ODFW that the water rights swap process has not been handled well and local tribes were not properly consulted on the issue.
There is also potential for local tribes to take further action on the issue. According to the 1855 treaty, the tribe is guaranteed “the exclusive right of taking fish in the streams running through and bordering said reservation…and at all other usual and accustomed stations”. This right could possibly be threatened by the Nestlé ordeal. How will a lower water level at Oxbow Springs affect traditional fishing areas downstream?
Native peoples are also garnering media attention and educating the public on the issue: from August 17th to 21st, Anna Mae Leonard of Unchee Wana Fisher People Against Nestlé fasted in front of Cascade Locks’ city hall building to protest the desecration of Oxbow Springs. Her courageous suffering was meant to symbolize a world without water and without salmon. Leonard told the Hood River News that she was “fasting to plead, beg, insist, implore the leaders of Cascade Locks to withdraw the water rights transfer application”. Although Cascade Locks’ city council has been stubbornly focused on what the city will gain economically, there’s still hope that they’ll change their minds. “Growing concern from locals in Cascade Locks and throughout Hood River County is promising,” DeGraw said. “With a city councilor in Cascade Locks openly questioning Nestlé’s bottling deal, groups like the Local Water Alliance forming to protect Hood River County’s water, and increased opposition from tribal fisher people it’s going to be harder than ever for Nestlé’s bottling plans to proceed.”
And even if the application is approved by the OWRD, those who disagree will have a chance to formally protest. These protestors will include indigenous groups and environmental organizations such as BARK and Food & Water Watch. The resulting appeals process could take until 2018, or even longer.
We have time to stop Nestlé if we make our voices heard. Governor Kate Brown could step in and make ODFW withdraw their end of the application. Cascade Locks could decide not to sell Oxbow Springs, even if they’re granted the rights to it. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs could win a legal battle to uphold the Treaty of 1855.
But the secret to success for all of these scenarios? Public support. Let’s tell the Governor and the OWRD that we don’t want our public waterways bought up, bottled up, and commodified. If we allow Oxbow Springs to be sacrificed, what’s preventing all our public water from becoming a private enterprise?
And corporations like Nestlé are unconcerned with their dire contributions to climate change. “The carbon footprint of bottled water is high once you take into consideration plastics used, shipping the plastic materials to the bottling facility on trucks, and then shipping the finished product to market,” DeGraw said.
If we don’t have the right to water—which our lives depend on—are we not powerless? Without water rights, we would become dependent on corporations. If drought increases and corporations buy up more water sources, we will have no choice but to rely on them for our very lives. We would be forced to rely on plastic bottles, made from petroleum, rigid and lifeless and undecaying. On the fossil-fuel-powered trucks shipping them across the country—our water, the giver of life, contributing to drought and death. Out of necessity, we would be forced to support a climate-disrupting industry because of water shortages wrought by climate change, which, of course, was caused in part by the excesses of corporations like Nestlé.
When the water runs out, these corporations will move on to another spring, profiting off of scarcity. They’ll force their way across the Earth, all the connected waters of the world, thinking of it only as money. Maybe we should remind them where they come from.
Written by Francesca Varela. She is a local author and 350pdx volunteer.