Paddlers vs. Nestle in the Columbia River Gorge

Trevor Sheehan is mobilizing the paddling community against a new bottled water plant

It’s easy for paddlers get riled up about environmental issues that are directly related to river access and boatable flows—environmental issues that affect us directly as a group of outdoor enthusiasts. Why, then, is one local paddler so concerned about a proposed bottled water plant that will affect 0.5 CFS of a spring that will not directly affect paddlers in any easily measurable way?

Trevor “Big Man” Sheehan is a local business owner and paddler who is taking a stand against the Nestle, the corporate goliath that wants to bottle water from Oxbow Spring in Cascade Locks, WA. Sitting down in his restaurant, Big Man’s Rotisserie, Sheehan explained that “We’re in the Pacific Northwest and it’s a beautiful place—it’s one of the best outdoor destinations on the West Coast and in North America—so why should we invite a for-profit company like Nestle, that has proven disregard to other places and communities, to come here and use a public resource like Oxbow Springs?”

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Nestle’s plans to bottle water from Oxbox Springs have been on the table for years and would legally transfer water rights from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to the city of Cascade Locks so that the city could sell that water to Nestle to bottle as Arrowhead Spring Water and Nestle Purelife. The pristine spring water, which currently flows into a salmon hatchery, would be replaced with less high quality groundwater for the hatchery.

Sheehan and other environmentalists are concerned that the bottling plant will negatively affect salmon, detract from the local recreation economy, and produce a product that is harmful to the environment.

The Columbia River Gorge is the undisputed promised land for whitewater paddlers in the Pacific Northwest. Spring-fed rivers like the Wind, White Salmon, and Little White Salmon flow from the slopes of volcanoes into the Columbia River, and local kayakers have rallied for Sheehan’s cause.

In October, Sheehan led a group of whitewater paddlers on a “paddle for change” down the Columbia River from Hood River to Cascade Locks. The paddlers battled fierce headwinds across 20 miles of flatwater in their attempt to raise awareness.

Paddlers rest during the kayak for change event.
Paddlers rest during the kayak for change event.

So far, his efforts have aided the local water alliance in obtaining the necessary 2,000 signatures to put a measure on the May ballot that will ban commercial bottling plants in Hood River County, potentially closing off at least one part of the Gorge to future development from Nestle.

“For me, personally, I feel like bottled water might have its place and its use in certain scenarios. But here in the first world we have the ability to make a very positive choice not to use plastic bottles, or use them as little as possible,” Sheehan asserted when asked why paddlers should care about environmental causes beyond river access and flows.

“Strive hard to consume less or, at least work hard to be more conscious of what you do consume,” advises Sheehan. “When you’re out on the river and you paddle down and see bottles floating in the eddies, let that inspire us to decrease the number of water bottles that are produced because that ultimately is just going to increase the amount of shit floating around in our rivers.”

Of course, the issue isn’t one-sided. While outdoor recreationists may harbor a strong culture of environmentalism, many residents in the Gorge still support the bottled water facilities construction, in part because the taxes from the 50 million dollar facility could potentially double the city’s revenue from property taxes and create jobs in a depressed economy.

While environmentalists are concerned that the bottled water plant and the associated truck traffic will detract from the natural beauty and recreation economy of the Columbia River Gorge as well as contribute to a global economic system that promotes thoughtless consumption and waste, other residents see the very clear cut tax revenues that could result from the plant’s construction.

Sheehan acknowledges that the tax revenue is significant, but asserts that revenue pales in comparison with what the community will give up. “Yes, they have given some revenue to the economic infrastructure in places they’ve developed but it really seems like a mask of their true intentions,” says Sheehan. “And if it’s about jobs, there are already a lot of businesses that can’t find employees in Cascade Locks in Skamania County. These little towns on either side of the Columbia River don’t have a vast employee pool to pull from. Thunder Island Brewery, for instance, can’t find employees.”

The severe drought that struck the Pacific Northwest last spring has highlighted that the region is not immune from issues of water supply. In the event that the spring’s resources are exhausted, Nestle would be able to draw from the city’s water supply to continue bottling.

In November, 2015, Oregon Governor Kat Brown ordered the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to pump the brakes and take a closer look at a proposal to build a Nestle bottled water facility in Cascade Locks. Governor Brown’s order reflects a growing outcry of public interest in the issue, showing that the battle for Oxbow Spring is far from over.

Bald eagles in the region feed on Salmon from the Columbia River. (photo by David Spiegel)
Bald eagles in the region feed on Salmon from the Columbia River. (photo by David Spiegel)

Looking to the future, Sheehan wants to generate an open, balanced dialogue that will bring more public attention to the issue. “Myself and Lucas King, a local kid from Trout Lake, are going to co-organize an internet forum that is a group discussion panel people can view and be a part of. We want community stakeholders and guest speakers from both sides of the issue to create an open discussion that isn’t just a biased rant. We want to open up more people’s eyes to the reality of the situation.”

—For more information about the battle for Oxbow Springs, read this in-depth article on KGW News.