Every once in awhile, years of hard work pay off beyond our expectations. This week on primary night in Oregon was one of those times as, after an eight-year battle, a coalition of advocates headed up by Food & Water Watch and the Local Water Alliance blocked the multi-national corporation Nestlé from bottling water from the Columbia River Gorge through a local ballot measure that passed by 69 percent. It was a precedent-setting victory — one that will hopefully pave the way for other communities to take a stand against corporations seeking to exploit community water resources.
At our victory party Tuesday night, I reflected back on our years-long efforts to stop the proposed water bottling plant in Cascade Locks that started long before we launched the ballot initiative. I remember sitting down to coffee long ago with Michael Kitts, a Hood River resident and owner of Mike’s Ice Cream Shop and Michael Kitts Homes, to give him the low down on the Keep Nestlé Out of the Gorge Campaign.
He asked the simple question asked by everyone who wants to protect our pristine spring water from Nestlé’s clutches: “What can we do to stop it?” And my answer didn’t satisfy. I said that we needed to keep asking the Governor to do the right thing and tell our state agencies to stop a water exchange that would make our public water available to Nestlé.
The disappointed look on his face made it clear that this path to victory didn’t sound too promising. I assured him we also had some legal options to force the state to do the right thing. But we all knew that if the state agencies and the governor wanted to do the right thing, they would have by then.
Since 2008, we had submitted tens of thousands of public comments to state agencies. According to then-Governor Kitzhaber’s staff, they received more letters, emails and phone calls on this issue than any other in Oregon. It seemed like they had their chance to shut down the Nestlé water grab. I was basically asking Mr. Kitts to just have faith.
Food & Water Watch’s hard work, along with that of our allies in the Keep Nestlé Out of the Gorge Coalition, laid a strong foundation for the next phase of our work. Then, in 2015 the perfect storm hit.
Locals Get Fired Up
A severe drought fell upon our region, kicking off a dialog on protecting local water resources. The Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes also asked the Governor to stop the proposal, and one brave Cascade Locks City Council Member, Deanna Busdieker, stepped up to oppose the deal — a development that inspired locals to fight for their water. After a state agency made the bad choice to expedite Nestlé’s water exchange, a spunky community group formed that would go on to become the Local Water Alliance, which launched this historic ballot measure to prohibit all commercial water bottling in Hood River County. Together, we passed the measure in a landslide victory against the world’s largest food and beverage company. That is how we win!
Together, we passed the measure in a landslide victory against the world’s largest food and beverage company. That is how we win!
I saw Michael Kitts at this week’s victory party and told him I had an answer to his question. What question?” he asked. I said, “Years ago you asked me how we’d kick Nestlé out, and it turns out you just have to run a ballot measure making it illegal to bottle water. Simple as that.” We both got a good laugh out of that — the ballot measure was hard work.
A Grassroots Coalition Victory
The incredible team of volunteers that made it happen put in hundreds of hours on the phone, hitting the pavement and knocking on doors, attending events, talking to groups, fundraising and just doing whatever was needed to win. Whether it was one of our chief petitioners, Pamela Larsen who gave up time with her family and her teaching job to help launch the Local Water Alliance, or Food & Water Watch’s Molly Kissinger who agreed to take on the often thankless task of organizing this grassroots effort, making hundreds of volunteer recruitment calls, knocking on more doors than anyone else on the campaign. Although this was Molly’s first time in that role, she held down the fort at our campaign headquarters and kept everyone motivated.
I would be remiss if I didn’t credit Aurora del Val for putting her entire life on hold to run this historic ballot measure. As the unpaid director of the Local Water Alliance, Aurora shepherded the team to this incredible victory. In doing so she discovered that she’s a great public speaker and can talk to reporters. She shocked herself by learning how much she enjoyed canvassing voters and calling them by phone. It wasn’t always easy, but Aurora persevered. It was incredible working with this largely women-powered team where we rose to every challenge and got done what needed to get done. This group is now like family to me, which cannot always be said of every election campaign.
A Model for Other Communities
So it is it with a light heart and exhausted body that I am so happy and proud to announce that indeed, a small group of people with a small budget can take on the world’s most powerful food and beverage company and win a landslide victory. We set an important precedent for other communities to follow if they, too, are determined to protect their water.