Bottled Water Blues

By Kari Lydersen, AlterNet . Posted June 3, 2003.

The residents of Mecosta County and the surrounding areas in central Michigan regard water as central to their identity. They fish for trout and watch ospreys and eagles feeding in the streams. They spend warm days by the ponds and small lakes that dot the woodlands. And of course the Great Lakes, which hold a fifth of the world’s fresh water, are a constant presence. So when a huge multinational bottled water company decided to move in and start pumping over half a million gallons of water a day out of the springs that feed their lakes and streams, the residents took it personally.

To meet the exponentially growing demand for bottled water, in the late ’90s Perrier subsidiary Great Spring Waters of America sought to open a major pumping and bottling operation in the Midwest. First the company tried to set up shop in Adams County, Wisconsin, but they were driven away by intense opposition from residents and local government.

So in 2001 Perrier, which has since been bought by Nestle Waters North America, was welcomed with open arms by then-Michigan Gov. John Engler, who allowed the company to open up a plant for a licensing fee of less than $100 per year and offered millions in tax breaks to boot.

Construction started on the plant even before all the necessary permits had been obtained. For the past year and a half, the plant has been pumping 100 to 300 gallons per minute out of an aquifer on a hunting preserve in Mecosta County and piping the water 11 miles away to a bottling plant in Stanwood, where it is prepared for shipping and sale around the Midwest as Nestle’s Ice Mountain brand.

Shortly after the pumping plan was announced, a grassroots movement of local residents and activists coalesced to oppose the plan, on the grounds that not only would the pumping have harmful effects on the environment and quality of life for residents, but it would also set a chilling precedent in selling off the area’s natural resources to a multinational company.

This coalition has used both legal and direct action approaches to raise awareness of the issue and try to stop the pumping plan. Among other things, the group Sweetwater Alliance, which has coordinated much of the grassroots opposition, staged a “canoe-in” along one of the streams fed by the spring.

n the fall of 2001 the group Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) along with four individual local residents filed a lawsuit in Mecosta County Circuit Court seeking to prevent the pumping, arguing that it was not a legally defined “reasonable use” of water and violated state and federal regulations regarding water rights. The case is currently being heard by Judge Lawrence Root, with an outcome expected by mid-June. The result will determine whether Nestle can keep pumping there or even increase its withdrawals from about 150 gallons a minute to as much as 800 gallons a minute. And even more than that, the case will set a precedent for Michigan and possibly other states in deciding whether and how companies are allowed to extract water for profit.

“This is a precedent-setting case about how our common law water rights will be defined and what folks can do with those rights,” said Scott Howard, an attorney working on the case. “Can folks take that water, bottle it and sell it for profit?”

In Michigan there are few regulations relating to the use of groundwater; it is essentially seen as part of the property it is on. “Ice Mountain paid $75 to $85 to the state for a permit application fee and with that it can essentially gain billions by selling [the water],” Howard said. “There’s no other industry that gets to do that — timber and mining industries don’t get to do that.”

Howard notes that under Michigan law, one can make “reasonable use” of water on the property they own, but the water can’t be diverted. The suit argues that the pumping of water to sell all over the Midwest is clearly a diversion.

There is also a federal law, the Water Resources Development Act, prohibiting the diversion of water headed to the Great Lakes. Under this measure opposition from a governor of any of the other Great Lakes states could theoretically put a halt to the pumping. In court lead attorney Jim Olson argued that at the very least the pumping should be limited to 100 gallons per minute instead of 400 or more.

The lawsuit cites studies finding that pumping 400 gallons a minute will reduce the flow of water in lakes and streams fed by the spring; in Deadstream by a half inch during the summer and in Thompson Lake by two and a quarter inches. “That might not sound like a lot, but in reality that could be irreparable harm,” said Rhonda Huff, vice president of MCWC. “Then you have to talk about erosion, invasive species that could come in if the water level drops, it sounds like you’re throwing the whole ecosystem off.”

“These streams support the wild iris that only grows in Michigan; the possum, raccoon, deer, owls and other birds that drink from them; the dragonflies and butterflies; the turtles, who are having a hard time already; and of course the fish,” added Lois Hartzler, who notes that she lives in Coldwater Township about 25 miles from the plant, in a town called Lake. “All of these things depend on the wetlands.”

But opponents of the pumping argue that even more than the actual effect of the pumping on the local environment is the larger issue of why Nestle should be allowed to extract billions of gallons of water a year from the area for profit without any remuneration to local citizens or even the state, beyond its permit fees and its lease with the private owner of the hunting preserve.

“At the gut level people believe water is for everybody,” said Holly Wren Spaulding, a member of the Sweetwater Alliance, noting that the grassroots movement against the plant has included a wide coalition ranging from Native American tribes to Navy SEALS. “People think it’s wrong for a transnational company to be allowed to come in and take water and profit from it.” Huff, who is a resident of neighboring Osceola County, noted that Nestle also has two experimental wells operating in Osceola and hopes to open a plant there, though it is currently prohibited from doing so by a local ordinance that is in effect through August 2004.

“I equate the plant to an octopus with tentacles going out to various springs,” she said.

“This will just open the floodgates,” added Blaine Stevenson, a professor of sociology at Central Michigan University and a water rights activist. “There are these bottled water wars going on now, with Coke and Pepsi and the others battling it out. They’re all going to want to come in here.”

Opponents say they see this situation as even more unjust given that not far away in Detroit, about 8,000 low-income families are without running water at all because they are unable to pay their water bills or live in buildings with outstanding back bills.

“It’s really frightening that our state would grant tax abatements to this plant while there are people in our cities who don’t have drinking water,” said Eartha Melzer, a journalist who has been documenting the whole struggle. “We’re moving toward a third world model in this country.”

A World-Wide Battle

Spaulding, who has traveled to Brazil, South Africa and other parts of the world for her work in the water rights movement, sees the issue as part of a world-wide battle against privatization of water and natural resources. The mass extraction of water is endangering environments around the world while at the same time a huge portion of the world’s population — including people in the U.S. — have trouble accessing clean fresh water.

“This isn’t just about the environment, this is about social justice,” she said. “That’s the part that has really riled people up.”

She notes that there is also a movement opposing a Nestle/Perrier bottling plant in Sao Lourenco in Brazil, where people blame the plant for drying up one of the country’s historic sources of mineral water. The Serra da Mantiqueira region of Brazil is famous for its Circuito das Aguas, or “water circuits,” with high mineral content and medicinal properties. Four small towns, including Sao Lourenco, were built up around these water circuits in the 19th century. Now people say the mineral content of the water is being reduced by over-pumping by Nestle/Perrier for its Pure Life brand. Non-governmental organizations were formed to oppose the pumping, and in 2001 the federal government launched an investigation into the company on the grounds it was violating constitutional prohibitions on demineralizing water.

“If it is pumped in quantities greater than nature can replace it, its mineral content will gradually decrease, bringing the change in taste that we were noticing,” said Franklin Frederick, a member of the International Free Water Academy, in a recent interview with the journal Mountain Research and Development.

There is clearly a water crisis around the world, exacerbated by deforestation, drought, and lack of infrastructure in poor countries, that prevents even available water from reaching much of the population. But for the most part the U.S. remains blissfully unaware of the crisis, consuming an average 92 gallons of fresh water daily, compared to 44 gallons for Europeans and five gallons for Africans. The mushrooming popularity of bottled water in a country where tap water is safe to drink is symbolic of the drive to consume without thinking about the bigger picture. In the year 2000, according to the book “Blue Gold” by Maude Barlow, over eight billion gallons of water were bottled and traded globally, over 90 percent in non-renewable plastic.

Activists in Michigan see the battle against Ice Mountain as a way not only to protect their own streams and lakes but to bring the larger issues of water conservation and rights to the attention of the American public.

“I think in the last year people in the state have become much more aware that privatization is a threat to our water,” said Melzer. “It’s only recently that people have realized water isn’t a limitless resource, and that it is vulnerable to exploitation by corporations.”

Kari Lydersen is a regular contributor to AlterNet. She writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.