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Nestle's plans to pump more water in Michigan

Nov 22, 2016

Fifteen years ago, a group called Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sued Nestle Waters North America, a division of the huge international conglomerate, over its plans to withdraw vast amounts of groundwater in Osceola County in Northwest Michigan.

Nestle wanted to siphon 400 gallons a minute from the aquifer, to bottle and sell at a profit. The environmentalists were concerned about what this would do to nearby rivers, streams, and ultimately, Lake Michigan. After years of legal wrangling, they came to a compromise in 2009.

Nestle agreed to siphon off only a little over 200 gallons a minute.

By the way, Nestle, or any private property owner, can legally take all the water they want to from their property for free, except for a $200 yearly fee to the state. Technically, they aren’t allowed to sell it outside the region.

But that restriction is pretty meaningless, since the fine print allows them to ship it to Outer Mongolia as long as they do so in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons.

Frankly, I wasn’t very happy with even that compromise. When it comes to the environment, I’ve always been a disciple of Joni Mitchell, whose most famous song contains these profound words:

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

I’m aware of lakes and seas in the former Soviet Union that have been utterly destroyed by irresponsible environmental policies.

But now Nestle wants to perform a major expansion at its bottling plant in Mecosta County, and pump 400 gallons a minute at a different well.

(Read more about their plan here.)

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has not yet approved this huge increase, but I have to tell you that I’m not hopeful. After all, this is an agency which, under the Snyder administration, has pretty consistently put profits ahead of people.

The MDEQ did this over the objections of the mayor, the city council and angry residents.

The MDEQ’s record of complicity and cover-up in the Flint disaster is well known, and the then-director was fired. But since then, the agency has approved a profit-seeking church’s plans to drill for oil in densely populated Southfield.

The MDEQ did this over the objections of the mayor, the city council and angry residents, some of whom live near the church and depend on well water, which could easily be endangered if something went wrong.

When it comes to deciding whether a company like Nestle should pump out more water, the MDEQ does have something called a Water Withdrawal Assessment tool that looks at the potential impact on fish and water flows. According to a story in the Detroit Free Press, when Nestle’s plans were put to the test, the company’s plans didn’t pass.

Again, the final decision hasn't been made, and it is possible the agency could do the right thing.

But, well, Nestle appealed and then, what do you know, the MDEQ staff decided to override the test results, and announce that the increased pumping “is not likely to cause an adverse effect.”

This is a familiar pattern with the agency, it turns out.

Again, the final decision hasn’t been made, and it is possible the agency could do the right thing. I realize we are headed into the Age of Trump, where all indications are that our national resources may be seen as profit centers. But you don’t have to buy Nestle’s Ice Mountain water, and unless this is satisfactorily resolved, I’ll bet some people won’t.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.