By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Oregon Governor Kate Brown has called for greater public scrutiny of food giant Nestle's plans to bottle water in the Columbia River Gorge, as the Pacific Northwest state languishes under historic drought conditions, her office said on Monday.
Nestlé Waters North America has for about six years been pushing for a deal that would see the company build a water bottling plant in Cascade Locks, a small city along the Columbia River in northern Oregon.
City officials say the $50 million plant would bring 50 "family wage" jobs in a town of 1,235 people with an unemployment rate more than triple the national level.
The plan has drawn opposition from environmental activists and residents. Opponents have filed paperwork to add a ballot measure for next year that, if passed, would ban large commercial water bottling in Hood River County.
Brown made her request for greater public scrutiny in a letter to Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher on Friday.
"Proposals to dispose of a state-held water right should move forward via the process that offers the greatest opportunity for public involvement," Brown said in the letter.
If the deal goes through, Nestle would buy water from Cascade Locks. The city would gain control of that water source, Oxbow Springs, which is on public land in the Mt. Hood National Forest, by obtaining a right to the water from the state.
On Friday, however, Brown asked that wildlife officials go forward with an exchange of water, rather than a water right transfer, because an exchange requires more public involvement. A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said on Monday that the agency would grant Brown's request.
Environmental groups sued the U.S. government last month for allowing Nestle to bottle water in California under a permit they say expired 27 years ago.
"We believe strongly in transparency and have worked with residents and other stakeholders to ensure their understanding of our proposal," Dave Palais, natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America, said in a statement.
Julia DeGraw, a spokeswoman for environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch, praised Brown's maneuvers, saying: "The company's proposal to bottle public water in a drought-stricken county is not likely to pass a public interest review."
(Reporting by Shelby Sebens in Portland, Oregon; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Leslie Adler)