In a unanimous vote Saturday, the Cowlitz Tribal Council took a public stance opposing the development of a Crystal Geyser water bottling plant along the Cowlitz River in Randle — a proposal that has drawn stiff backlash from the community and many tribal members.
“It’s a major concern to the tribe at this point in time,” said Bill Iyall, the tribe’s chairman. “The initiative is to protect our rights and our homeland there, and to protect the environment and the cultural resources.”
Text of the measure passed by the council was not immediately available, but Iyall said the tribe will soon put forth a press release and tribal position statement. In general, he said, the vote was to demonstrate the will of the tribe opposing the project. Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, another member of the tribal council, said in a message that the 22-member panel voted to take an “active part” in seeking to stop the project.
“We oppose their water right application and the project itself,” Iyall said. “I don't think it was much more extensive than that.”
Iyall and Kinswa-Gaiser have been among many members of the Cowlitz Tribe who have publicly expressed concern about the project, but any formal action needed to be preceded by a position statement from the tribal council, the chairman said.
Worries about the project are manyfold. Crystal Geyser’s planned development would pull 400 gallons per minute from springs on its Peters Road property, bottling the water in a 100,000 square foot plant before shipping it off on semi trucks. Some believe it will deplete the aquifer, depriving the river of an important source of fresh, cold water — crucial for the salmon that have been returning in dwindling numbers in recent years.
Meanwhile, building a massive industrial plant in an otherwise quiet rural valley could have effects on the wildlife that frequent the area. Others, like Kinswa-Gaiser, believe the construction and operation of the plant would disturb cultural resources of historic importance.
“That plant, they say they’re taking (the water) from a spring. If there’s a spring, you can bet that our people — that’s where they chose to build a camp,” she told county commissioners last week. “I’m really putting my hopes that this will be a big help to stop this. … I’m really hoping to bring this to the tribe to start historic preservation as one of the key elements of stopping this water plant.”
Iyall said the tribe’s opposition does not come down to any single concern.
“The aquifer and the impacts there, the cold water sources for the fish in the river, the importance of that — a lot of it is the fishery,” he said. “But it's a very culturally important location on the river as well, a lot of sensitivities there.”
According to a published history, a band of Upper Cowlitz people known as the ceq’klama lived along Kiona Creek — which is just a short distance from the Crystal Geyser property.
Iyall said Crystal Geyser reached out to the tribe to schedule a meeting, which was since postponed. He anticipated tribal leaders will meet with the company at some point to learn more specifics about the project. Page Beykpour, the company’s chief operations officer, did not respond to a request for comment.
At present, Crystal Geyser is seeking a withdrawal permit from the Washington State Department of Ecology. If it receives that permit, it would then likely apply with the Lewis County for a special use permit. Both processes are subject to public comment and appeal, and the Cowlitz Tribe plans to weigh in.
“A tribal voice is critical when it comes to natural and cultural resource impacts,” Iyall said. “We're fortunate that we do have opportunity to voice that. It weighs heavily on those processes.”
Depending on the outcome of the bureaucratic process, it may fall to opponents to challenge Crystal Geyser in court, a possibility that the tribe is considering.
“That's a further down the road decision, and I'm guessing there probably will be litigation on this matter if it moves too far down the road,” Iyall said. “The tribe will have to decide at that time where to participate.”