The Lewis County Planning Commission on Nov. 12 endorsed a revision of the Rural Zoning Code intended to prevent projects such as Crystal Geyser’s proposed 100,000 square-foot water-bottling plant along the Cowlitz River in Randle.
That approval will likely be made official during the group’s upcoming meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. on Dec. 10, which will be preceded by a public hearing.
Once the Planning Commission votes on its official recommendation, it will go before the Board of County Commissioners as the final step in the approval process.
Craig Jasmer, of the Lewis County Water Alliance, described how the board selected two code modifications supported — and requested — by his group that would both amend and add new language to local zoning code that would prohibit the extraction of ground or surface water by corporately-owned facilities to produce bottled water.
Jasmer has been one of Crystal Geyser’s most ardent opponents since the bottled water company first purchased the land — with an estimated 5 to 10-acre footprint — at 807 Peters Road earlier this year based on the potentially “destructive” effects a new bottling plant could inflict on an agricultural community.
“They’re looking to set up shop in Randle, which is a very remote, pristine area out in the very rural part of Lewis County. It’s a residential and agricultural zone and it would just ruin the way of life of everyone who lives out here,” said Jasmer, a private security firm project manager who resides near the Randle-Kiona Airpark.
Jasmer and his fellow Water Alliance members have joined forces with other local groups, such as the Cowlitz Tribal Council and the Columbia Riverkeeper, to raise concerns about increased industrial traffic on small county roads frequented by pedestrians, cyclists and farmers riding their horses when and if a new bottling site were to open.
What’s more, Jasmer cited noise and air pollution as other issues.
“Not only would they be pumping water directly out of the aquifer that everybody gets their well water from, they would them be putting it in plastic bottles, selling it and they (wouldn’t) pay anything for that water— it’s all free to them,” he said
The project, as previously reported by The Chronicle, would seek to pull 400 gallons per minute from springs on the site. The Water Alliance and other conservation groups have advocated for limiting commercial water bottling to 5,000 gallons of water for consumptive use per day for local owners with exempt wells. Crystal Geyser’s plan would reportedly extract hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the location.
Crystal Geyser did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Eisenberg said Crystal Geyser had “no interaction at all” with the county when the California-based water bottling firm started exploring the possibility of establishing a new operation in Randle.
He said the corporation had applied with the Department of Ecology for water rights in the form of a state-issued withdrawal permit as a preliminary requirement to gain the agency’s approval for the project.
The Department had reportedly instructed Crystal Geyser to perform initial testing on their purchased property to determine the feasibility of the requested permit.
“It’s so early in Ecology’s process that they haven’t had any public comment,” said Eisenberg. “So, the feasibility study the Department of Ecology was talking about was doing some test work on the ground on that property they bought to see if the well would be (well suited) to draw water from.”
And though Crystal Geyser had met with Economic Development Council to communicate its plan, they never disclosed their objectives with county government. Eisenberg told The Chronicle how local residents took the initiative to inform his office and other county departments of their disappointment with the study and future plant development.
Upon hearing from Randle community members, the Board of County Commissioners subsequently imposed a six-month moratorium on “standalone food and beverage producers” in August to allow the Planning Commission to study the issue.
“The moratorium was something that was publicized as a possibility. There was a public hearing on it … and Crystal Geyser did not participate at all in the process. They, as far as I can tell, made no attempt … so the moratorium went into place,” stated Eisenberg.
During their workshop sessions, the Planning Commission listened to several residents who expressed their opinions that Crystal Geyser’s proposal was inconsistent with rural development in Randle by reportedly citing references to existing laws to support their position.
But despite the considerable backlash produced by Crystal Geyser’s venture to establish a presence in Randle, one of the County Commissioners previously “expressed concern,” according to Eisenberg, that collective efforts to keep the bottling out of the area could undermine the message that Lewis County is open for business.
“You have to weigh the competing principles here of the folks in Randle to protect their neighborhood or their view of rural character. Lewis County has an interest in making sure that people who live (here) … have jobs,” said Eisenberg.
The county attorney also noted the corporation could have shielded itself from any prohibitive future amendments by securing a county permit the moment “they learned citizens were upset about this,” said Eisenberg.
The permit could have grandfathered Crystal Geyser into current law at the time of their application.
“I think it’s rightly that that they wouldn’t have qualified to do what they wanted to do anyway, but they would have at least had the benefit of that law being frozen in time for them when they applied. They wouldn’t have had to worry about any future law changes,” he reported.
Eisenberg speculated that Crystal Geyser’s strategy could have been a calculated business risk they took to avoid testing Lewis County’s position or governing laws.
But while Crystal Geyser may ultimately be forbidden from conducting business in unincorporated areas and/or rural communities, they wouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing investment opportunities in urban growth areas of Lewis County that afford them greater access to “proven” services, he said.