SALEM, Ore. — Native Americans dressed in traditional garb came to the Oregon State Capitol on Wednesday to protest persistent attempts to bring a Nestle water bottling plant to an Oregon county that rejected the plan in a ballot measure in May. One protester is on a hunger strike.
Although 69 percent of voters in Hood River County voted to ban commercial water bottling, 58 percent of voters in the city of Cascade Locks where the plant is planned voted in favor letting Nestle in, said Gordon Zimmerman, city manager of the community in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Zimmerman told The Associated Press in an email that the city council “has directed staff to review the legal ramifications and remedies available to the City in order to continue the relationship with Nestle Waters North America.”
Under the bottling plan, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would swap with the city some water that comes from a spring that supplies a fish hatchery and goes into a creek that feeds into the Columbia River.
The city would then sell that spring water to Nestle. The application for the water exchange is pending before the Oregon Water Resources Department, said fish and wildlife department spokesman Rick Swart.
Opponents of the bottling plant said the state should have dropped the water swap plan. They suspect the state is trying to leave the door open for Nestle and ignore the county vote. Protesters believe the water swap will harm salmon, which the tribes use for food and at traditional gatherings.
“We were pretty surprised that in spite of the landslide victory of ballot Measure 14-55, which would protect the water from huge water bottling corporations like Nestle … that the governor, Oregon water resources and fish and wildlife would not honor and respect that,” hunger-striker Anna Mae Leonard said in an interview.
As she spoke to supporters on the steps of the capitol, Leonard rocked unsteadily on her feet and licked dry lips. A colleague said Leonard began her five-day hunger strike on Monday and Leonard said she is also drinking no water.
“I want to get the attention of the governor, of the water resource department and fish and wildlife,” she said.
Jode Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, went inside the capitol to try to meet with Gov. Kate Brown.
Walking up a sweeping staircase with supporters in tow, he went into an anteroom of the governor’s offices, where Brown was making a proclamation about Hispanic Heritage Month before a room full of onlookers.
The governor posed for a photo with attendees and left through a back door before Goudy, wearing beaded moccasins and a vest decorated with bison images, could approach her.
Christopher Rieck, a Nestle spokesman, said the company is pleased that many voters in Cascade Locks opposed the measure banning commercial water bottling, even though most of the surrounding county was for it.
“However, we fully respect the democratic process,” he said. “With respect to any future legal actions, Nestle Waters does not currently intend to pursue its own legal challenge to this measure.”