She Was Just One Person…Until She Joined Up with Her Neighbors to Take on Nestlé

With the soothing voice of a teacher and the gentle smile of a neighbor, one would not have imagined that Aurora del Val would have stepped forward to become one of the many community leaders in Hood River County’s community fight against Nestlé’s plans to bottle millions of gallons of local water in her hometown.

In 2007, Nestlé proposed the building of a $50 million bottled water facility in Cascade Locks, a rural, economically depressed town 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The facility would extract 230 million gallons of pristine spring and municipal water each year for Nestlé’s bottled water business, enticing local officials, residents, and businesses with the promise of jobs and much needed tax revenue.

Concerned with the commodification of state-managed water and corporate profiteering from public resources, concerned citizens and watchdog groups such as Food & Water Watch, BARK and CRAG Law Center began calling for interventions primarily at the state level. Their eight-year-long campaign managed to delay Nestlé from setting up shop in Cascade Locks. Yet, the fight remained far from over until the day Nestlé pulled out of negotiations.

In fact, the likelihood of Nestlé securing a spot in Cascade Locks became increasingly imminent over the years, until one Cascade Locks city councilor, Deanna Busdieker, publicly spoke out against Nestlé’s proposal during a brief public interest review window in January 2015.

“Until I heard Deanna speak, I assumed that [Nestlé’s proposal] was going to happen, but after talking to neighbors at these meetings, I realized we had a chance of doing something about it, which shifted my perspective,” Aurora said.

Aurora, prompted by her husband and Busdieker, started joining forces with neighbors to push for town hall meetings where they could publicly raise concerns with Nestlé’s proposal. Local opposition in the small town of Cascade Locks emerged as the community woke up to the fact that Nestlé’s water bottling plant was not the done deal it appeared to be.

For the first time in eight years, local opposition in Cascade Locks and neighboring cities of Hood River and Stevenson got organized to keep Nestlé out of the Columbia River Gorge. In June 2015, the grassroots group Local Water Alliance (LWA) was born out of a formerly loose group of concerned residents. Local Native American tribes joined LWA’s fight as members of Hood River County came together to flex their citizen muscle.

Aurora became the Campaign Director of the LWA, taking on the responsibility of reaching out to ally groups and the media to rally support against Nestlé’s plan. Together, members of the LWA committee thought long and hard about various strategies they could adopt, before deciding to campaign for a county-wide charter. If passed, this measure would effectively block Nestlé’s proposal by restricting daily extraction limits for commercial water bottling and preventing the export of local water.

The LWA got to work quickly. Its first project was a pre-ballot campaign to reach out to and educate county residents about Nestlé’s plans. Unlike Nestlé’s approach of top-down communication driven by ‘experts’ at its town hall meetings, the LWA’s approach was to nurture a strong presence by connecting neighbors and getting the community talking about local water ownership and the threats posed by Nestlé’s plans.

“I remember it was winter, and we were knocking on doors and standing outside of grocery stores; pens stopped working because it was icy weather. But our dedicated volunteers kept on going to gather signatures,” shared Aurora. From letters to the editor of the local newspaper to house visits, LWA activists worked tirelessly to gather support for a county ballot measure. Soon enough, they managed to collect a whopping four times the number of signatures needed to call for a ballot, and Measure 14-55 was put to a vote in Hood River County.

When asked what kept her going, Aurora cites a multitude of fellow community members who inspired her: Deanna Busdieker, the sole Cascade Locks elected official who publicly objected to Nestlé’s plans; long-time resident Kathy Tittle, who originally supported the Nestlé proposal but then stridently opposed it after learning about Nestlé’s troubling track record in other communities; Klairice Westley, a local Native American resident and activist who went on a week-long food and water fast in the heat of August to raise public awareness. “Just seeing how committed other people are to standing up for what they believe in and being courageous and vulnerable really inspired me,” she shared.

In May 2016, 69% of residents voted “yes” on Measure 14-55, making it a resounding victory for Aurora, the LWA and Hood County.

Through it all, Aurora hardly imagined she would be one of the champions leading Hood River County’s fight to victory. A college English teacher by profession, she hardly saw herself as an activist and felt uncomfortable with being labeled as such. “I guess I consider myself the reluctant activist,” she said. “I’ve always seen myself as an educator and an introvert, and I still do, but when I realized the crossover between teaching and community organizing, I really got into the work and loved how we developed a team of incredible people from all walks of life devoted to protecting our water.  This campaign gave me a much deeper appreciation for people who put themselves out there. I’m so grateful and humbled by our community’s groundswell of support.”

“Ordinary people like me just need to have the will and commitment to work for what they believe in and always take the higher ground. I also found that genuine and respectful listening goes a long way.”

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