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Suffering for the Salmon: Native Woman's Five-Day Fast Opposes Nestlé Water Grab

Native woman Anna Mae Leonard held a five-day hunger strike to protest Nestlé's plans to bottle water from salmon-essential Oxbow Springs.

Temperatures climbed into the mid-90s the week Anna Mae Leonard held a five-day hunger strike across the street from City Hall in Cascade Locks, Oregon. From August 17 to 21 she allowed herself just a ceremonial sip of water taken from the spring she was fighting to save, one in the morning and one in the evening. Displaying a sign reading, "Honor Treaty 1855," she stared at the administration building across WaNaPa Street, hoping a city council member would see her.

"I want them to look at me suffer and think about how the fish will suffer without that cold spring water," Leonard said, according to The Oregonian.

Nestlé S.A., the world's largest multinational food conglomerate, based in Switzerland, wants to build a bottled-water plant in Cascade Locks, a former timber town on the Columbia River about 43 miles east of Portland. The plant would take 100 million gallons per year of pristine mountain water from the nearby Oxbow Springs and bottle it under the Arrowhead brand name.

Bark and Food, Water Watch and other environmental protection groups note that Oxbow Springs flows into the Columbia River. The cold mountain water holds more oxygen than the warmer river water and provides a thermal refuge that is necessary for spawning salmon to survive.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, 14 hydroelectric dams have been built on the Columbia, each one damaging the river by creating reservoirs that warm the surface temperature. Additionally, a hotter-than-normal summer this year combined with a lower-than-normal snow pack have heated the river to deadly levels, killing more than half this year's run of sockeye salmon, the The Oregonian reported.

RELATED: Deadly Disease Detected in Lower Klamath Chinook Salmon, Water Flow Increased Again

Despite current drought conditions, Nestlé plans to take the cool Oxbow Springs water, load it into tanker trucks, transport it to the proposed bottling plant in Cascade Locks, put it into plastic single-use bottles, and ship it in still more trucks to cities like Portland, Seattle and Spokane. There, customers will pay what amounts to between $2.50 and $5 per gallon for water that cost Nestlé just over two-tenths of a cent per gallon.

Leonard wanted people to see the suffering that Nestlé would cause. Her ancestors from the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde tribes fished on the Columbia River for countless generations. The treaty they signed with the federal government in 1855 granted them "...the exclusive right of taking fish... at all other usual and accustomed stations in common with citizens of the United States." Later decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court determined this included Indian water rights as specified by the Winters Doctrine, which means that enough water to support fish must be left in streams and rivers. By sucking up a valuable source of cooling spring water, Nestlé would infringe on that right.

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Water from Oxbow Springs is owned by the public and managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Nestlé has been after it for the past seven years. Normally, selling large quantities of it to them would require a lengthy public review process, but Nestlé found a way around that. The city of Cascade Locks has agreed to trade 0.5 cubic feet per second of its local well water to ODFW in exchange for the same amount of Oxbow Springs water, which the city would then sell to Nestlé. This swap of warmer town water for cooler spring water requires much less public review.

In return for supporting the water swap, the city of Cascade Locks will get a 250,000-square-foot bottling facility and approximately 50 jobs. Opponents say most of these jobs will be taken by existing Nestlé employees from other towns who will be transferred to Cascade Locks.

In April the water swap deal was submitted to the Oregon Water Resources Department and is currently being reviewed. Leonard's five-day fast across the street from Cascade Locks City Hall protested this swap.

Photo: Facebook/

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation protest with environmental groups in front of Oregon’s State Capitol in Salem on September 16, opposing a proposed water swap that would allow Nestlé to bottle and sell 100 million gallons per year of pure Oxbow Springs water.

Although perhaps the most visible, Leonard is not the only voice speaking out. Opposition to Nestlé has been active in Oregon from the very beginning. For years activist groups held regular press conferences and took people on tours of Oxbow Springs. Most recently, Native leader E. Austin Greene Jr., Chairman of the Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, wrote to Governor Kate Brown in May protesting the lack of Native input regarding the water swap.

Leonard's fast brought greater visibility to the issue, however, and garnered increased support. On September 16, Native and non-Native protesters alike gathered on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem and spoke out against the water grab. Chief Johnny Jackson of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation spoke, as did Leonard and other Native and environmental advocacy group leaders.

On September 21, members of the Local Water Alliance began gathering signatures to put an initiative on the May 2016 ballot in Hood River County to stop Nestlé. The initiative would limit the amount of water a company could commercially bottle to 1,000 gallons per day or less. If successful, it would be the first time a ballot initiative has prevented Nestlé from opening a bottling facility.

Warriors and their weapons come in many forms. Anna Mae Leonard fought by letting the City Council see her suffering and by staring at them. In the hands of an expert Native warrior, weapons such as these are often the most powerful of all.