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Water conservation group fights Nestlé, state over sale of natural resources

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality issued Nestlé Water North America its first permit to extract state water for profit in 2000. Since then, the company has extracted millions of gallons of water it bottles and sells back to Michigan residents for as much as $1.80 a bottle.

The state charges Nestlé virtually nothing for the water it uses.

The registered student organization Take Back The Tap will protest Nestlé products to show support to the water conservation group, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. 

"Nestlé, which operates wells in Mecosta and Osceola Counties, has taken billions of gallons of water from Michigan for little to no cost," said Allison LaPlatt, president of Take Back The Tap. "Nestlé is using a municipal water source shared by farmers and community members. They're lowering the (local) water table, making grotesque amounts of profit from that water, and the people see no compensation for it."

Section 17 of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act allows industries to install pumps in municipal water systems as long as they use water to make a product. Most companies use water as part of a process to produce goods, such as baby food or cleaning equipment or to hydrate crops and grass.

In Nestlé's case, the billions of gallons of groundwater it has pumped from local aquifers is its product. 

Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, said the DEQ reported that between 2005 and 2015, Nestlé has taken 3.4 billion gallons of water from its wells in Evart––located about 45 miles from Central Michigan University’s campus.

“There is something wrong with our state’s water policies,” Ostahoswski said. "You have thousands of families in Flint without water because their water infrastructure is outdated and mistreated. Thousands of families shut off in Detroit because they can't afford high water bills. (Nestlé has), made billions in profit from the states most precious natural resource and for nearly nothing.”

Nestlé Waters North America is the largest water bottle company in the United States. The wells operating in Mecosta county have pulled nearly 2 billion gallons of groundwater in a little over a decade. 

"Companies, which use billions of gallons of water to operate, have found ways to take advantage of Michigan's water laws and regulations, and they're selling it for a very large profit," LaPlatt said. "Water is the only natural resource companies don't have to compensate to the state. When the state invests in companies which uses billions of gallons of water, they're inherently choosing the companies priority over the water infrastructure millions of people depend on for safe drinking water. " 

Michigan’s water costs nothing to its citizens. Transmitting treated water through municipal pipes is what residents receive in the form of a monthly water bill. If you have a well on your property, you only pay to maintain the pump or replace pipes.

In exchange for the hundreds of gallons of water it extracts each day, Nestlé pays the state an annual $200 registration fee that notifies that state that it is using the water for business.

"They pay 95 cents for one million gallons,” Ostahowski said.

According to a study done by the Beverage Marketing Corporation, water bottle sales have increase by 6.2 percent since 2003 and more than 10 billion gallons of water were bottled for profit in 2014.

Mariah Ureta, a CMU alumnus and organizer at Food and Water Watch of Michigan, said there are also economic discrepancies with bottled water.

"Bottled water is (2000) times more expensive than a glass of water from the tap," Ureta said. "People are being told this water is significantly safer and healthier than tap water, and its not."

The study also stated bottled water wholesale in 2014 was $13.1 billion, Nestlé Waters North America bottled water sales were $4.1 billion. 

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation is requesting the DEQ refrain from allowing private water bottling companies from increasing their water intake until the impacts of lowering the water table are fully assessed.

“Nestlé increased their water intake from 150 to 250 gallons per minute in 2015 without proper public notification, without public comment, and without public hearing,” Ostahowski said.Now they want to increase that pumping to 400 gallons per minute, and it almost went without public notice again.”

Communication breakdown

Last fall the DEQ and Nestlé released news of the company’s $36 million expansion of its Ice Mountain bottling plant in a little-read state publication. Nestlé proposed increasing its production by extracting 400 gallons per minute from its Evart wells. It currently pumps 150 gallons per minute from that location.

When MLive environmental reporter Garret Ellison–– a Central Michigan Life alumnus, wrote about the proposal’s public comment period ending, the DEQ was flooded with calls and emails. The public comment period was extended until March 3.

"The DEQ could've put more effort into informing the public about Nestlé requesting to increase its water intake because the water being used comes directly from the community's water table," LaPlatt said. "l believe the DEQ owes Evart's community an apology." 

Arlene Anderson-Vincent, the natural resource manager at Nestlé Water North America, said the permit was submitted in April 2015 because the company doesn’t want to become reliant on one water source.

In 2014, the company had to stop a $500,000 private well from operating in Osceola County after the toxin, perchlorate, was found in the aquifer. Apparently perchlorate is a byproduct of the community’s annual July fireworks display.

The request to increase daily water intake by 360,000 gallons concerns Ostahowski.

“People who live near by Twin Creek and Chippewa Creek are seeing trout disappear in small numbers each year because the hydrology is being altered,” he said.

That alteration is caused by a cone of depression which forms around pump PW-101.

According to the Application Information Package in the permit submitted to Nestlé Water North America Inc. by private environmental consultancy, Golder Associates Corporation: “After 10 years of continuously pumping PW-101 at the increased rate of 400 GPM, additional aquifer drawdown of approximately 1 foot is predicted at the nearest residential wells.”

Twin Creek, Chippewa Creek and the Muskegon River all belong to the same water table. If a well is pulling from the table fast enough it can create a cone of depression which means the water table is being pulled toward the pump and pulls from all the ecosystems shared by that aquifer.

Anderson-Vincent said PW-101, which operates continuously, does reduce the water levels around the pump, but “they rise back up when the pump is turned off.”

Humble beginnings

For the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, the battle for more sustainable water policies stems back 17-years-ago.

When Nestlé began operating at Sanctuary Springs in Mecosta County, residents to neighboring lakes connected to the same water system were ready to take legal action to protect the environment. 

The Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation filed a lawsuit in Mecosta County Circuit Court in 2001 requesting Nestlé to stop pumping because of the adverse effects it could have to watersheds, wetlands and streams connected to the aquifer. 

Nestlé was pumping 400 GPM from four separate pumps. After a 19-day-long million dollar trial and an uncountable amount of bake sales and fundraisers, Circuit Court Judge Lawerence Root found Nestlé's pumping would adversely affect the water resources and ecosystems sharing the groundwater and the company was requested to stop their intake.

However, in 2004, Nestlé appealed the ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals which granted them a stay allowing them to pump 250 GPM. 

Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's investigation of environmental harm and rules a balancing test must be applied between homeowners and companies sharing a source of groundwater. An out of court settlement was reached between Nestlé and the group, granting the company to take 218 GPM.

“There are two sides to this law,” Ostahowski said. “No one is allowed to take enough water out of an ecosystem if it causes impairment to the ecosystem. But it also allows industries an opportunity to fight it in court regardless of the impairment.”

An assessment submitted to Nestlé by Golder Associates, an environmental contracting corporation, stated the ecosystem won’t be adversely effected but “ultimately the flow of the Muskegon River would be decreased by 250 gallons-per-minute because the affected tributaries are in the Muskegon River watershed.” The assessment also indicated that some wetlands could have a drawdown of 12 inches of water.

Lawmakers grew concerned about the potential for the diversion and sale of Great Lakes water. They want to be able to “protect, conserve, restore, improve and effectively manage” Great Lakes water without interference. In 2008, the Great Lakes Compact was signed into law by President George W. Bush after it was approved by all eight Great Lakes states and the U.S. Congress. The Compact bans the diversion of lake water outside the basin, though there are some limited exceptions. Water diversion must be a last resort.

“By signing the compact they agreed to prevent the diversion of Great Lakes water for profit,” explained Don Uzarski, director of Great Lakes Research. “You can’t pipe it to California or Colorado. But what happens when you turn that fresh water into a product?”

In the grand scheme of things, Uzarski said Nestlé is just one of many companies and agriculture industries which use as much, if not more, water to operate a business or manufacture a product.

“As a society we have permanently lowered the water table some regions with a lot of development,” Uzarski said. “It’s easy to pick one industry, whether it's water bottles or agriculture, but it's really about the collective impact that really makes the difference.”

That collective impact is one of the reasons Take Back the Tap is working with CMU administrators to install 10 new water bottle re-fill stations on campus every year for the next few years. The RSO's goals are to phase out the sale of single-use water bottles on campus by educating students and administrators on their negative economic, environmental and health effects.

For LaPlatt, industries like Nestlé are creating a false narrative to help the sales of their products. Rather than make companies like Nestlé even more wealthy by buying bottled water, she hopes students take an interest in lobbying government officials on improving community waters sources.

 “People start believing bottled water is safer than tap water and its not,” she said. “We shouldn’t be buying what we’re told is cleaner water––we should be demanding our government is able to provide us all with clean water.”