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Institute Urges DEQ to Defer Perrier Permit

Further economic, environmental study necessary

May 16, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Testimony of
Andrew Guy, Michigan Land Use Institute
On the Perrier Group of America’s Water Bottling Proposal in Mecosta County
To the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Holiday Inn, Big Rapids
May 16, 2001

The Michigan Land Use Institute appreciates this opportunity to comment on the proposal by the Perrier Group of America to withdraw, bottle, and sell Great Lakes water. The Institute believes that the proposal, which will set a precedent for bottled water operations in Michigan, presents a valuable opportunity to advance reasoned management of our globally unique freshwater resources.

The Institute urges the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to defer the approval of Perrier’s application at this time. This is an important opportunity to expand and strengthen rules for reviewing and permitting new, high-capacity wells to ensure the safety and supply of groundwater, as well as the interrelated Great Lakes waters.

We recommend that the MDEQ consider Perrier’s application only after:

  • The company completes a comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impact to the region’s water and water-dependent resources and,
  • It is determined that the company can abide by the soon-to-be-adopted pioneering principles of the proposed Annex 2001 agreement. The Annex is a historic water stewardship accord between the eight Great Lakes states that strives to protect, conserve, and improve our clean fresh water supply.

The Context
Before Perrier came to Michigan, the Ontario-based Nova Group received permission in 1998 from the Canadian government to withdraw annually up to 156 million gallons of water from Lake Superior for sale in Asian markets. The proposal would have been the first to allow bulk transfer of water by tanker from the Great Lakes. But the Ontario Ministry of Environment ultimately rescinded the company’s permit in direct response to outrage from citizens and lawmakers in both Canada and the U.S.

The public’s concern is justified. Globally, clean fresh water is a dwindling resource. Population growth promises more thirsty people. Climate change threatens to redistribute water around the planet. Diminished political representation of Midwestern states at the national level means less power to lobby for Great Lakes protections. And globalization, as well as international economic treaties, weakens the United States’ authority to control the trade of its natural resources. The value of fresh water only rises in this global context.

Indeed, Michigan Governor John Engler calls it "our most precious liquid asset." That’s why Great Lakes residents approach highly consumptive proposals such as that put forth by the Nova Group with careful scrutiny and advance water conservation efforts such as the proposed Annex 2001.

Perrier now proposes to construct Michigan’s largest groundwater bottling facility and intends to consume annually (given the 500 gpm estimate) more than 262 million gallons of water from the Great Lakes basin. That’s 106 million gallons more than the Nova proposal, and raises similar social, economic, political, and environmental concerns.

Michigan must consider Perrier’s proposal within the troubling global context of fresh water scarcity. But my goal tonight is to submit to this public forum Michigan-specific water resource information to help guide consideration of the company’s application.

Protecting the Groundwater Resource
In direct response to citizen comments, Gov. Engler requested just last month that the governors of the Great Lakes states strengthen the proposed Annex 2001 agreement. The governor called for the elimination of the so-called de minimis exemption, which is a flaw in the agreement that would provide no oversight of proposals to remove less than one million gallons of water from the Great Lakes per day — proposals such as Perrier’s.

"I am concerned," Mr. Engler wrote, "that the de minimis exemption does not take into account the differing impacts that a given withdrawal may have based upon its locus, e.g., whether from surface or groundwater."

His concern, by necessity, applies directly to Michigan. The state’s reliance on groundwater — a resource inextricably connected with lakes, rivers, and streams — is unique. Forty-five percent of the state’s population depends on subsurface water supplies, and the state has more private wells than any other in the nation, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey and the National Ground Water Association respectively. Further, Michigan drilled more new wells in 1998 than in any year previously recorded, proving that demand for fresh water is rising. Additionally, the population in Mecosta County grew by nearly nine percent, according to the 2000 census.

Rising Demand
The state acknowledged this sharp rise in local demand as a problem nine years ago in a Department of Natural Resource’s report titled Michigan’s Environment and Relative Risk. The report identified the "mining" of groundwater for consumptive use as one of the most troublesome and poorly understood challenges facing water resource management. The report also recognized that "incomplete understanding of shallow groundwater flow systems and their influence on the surface waters can result in drastic reductions in flow, lack of water availability for direct withdrawal, and habitat loss during droughts." The International Joint Commission, a research organization created by the U.S. and Canada to resolve Great Lakes water issues, supported the report’s findings in 2000 stating that Great Lakes groundwater suffers from a "serious lack of information."

Moreover, the MDNR’s findings were accurate. Groundwater overdraft — the difference between consumption and replenishment — has led recently to water shortages in Saginaw and Kent counties. In both cases, state water policy has proven grossly inadequate to mitigate, much less prevent, water use conflicts. In a region blessed with a water source as plentiful as the Great Lakes, this unsettling situation is a real life example of how little we know about the groundwater resource and how exploitation can cost the people of Michigan.

In Saginaw, residents re-drilled wells at their own expense, economic development remains stymied by moratoriums on new irrigation wells, and state taxpayers in 2001 appropriated $100,000 for groundwater studies in southeast Michigan.

DEQ Responsible for Protecting Resources, Managing Demand
The Safe Drinking Water Act (Act 399 of 1976) enables the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to manage the development of high capacity wells. The Groundwater Supply Section’s responsibilities include monitoring groundwater quality, coordinating wellhead protection activities, regulating well construction, operation, and abandonment activities, and insuring that aquifers are isolated from pollution to safeguard public health. The law also charges the state with assuring "proper utilization and protection of groundwater aquifers."
(R 830. (2)(g)) Historically, the state has construed "protection" to mean water quality. Now it is important to include water quantity.

The Institute acknowledges that, in the context of the abundant Great Lakes water supply, Perrier’s proposed withdrawals appear inconsequential. However, water-bottling facilities in particular may pose a unique threat to Great Lakes conservation efforts. When water is "captured" and entered into commerce, it may attract the attention of international trade agreements such as NAFTA, according to the International Joint Commission.

Undoubtedly, Perrier’s operation would shift a certain degree of decision-making away from the sovereign state of Michigan and toward global markets. Such a scenario is exactly what the people of Michigan and Great Lakes leaders hope to avoid by advancing innovative conservation agreements such as the proposed Annex 2001.

Perrier’s operation, then, brings substantial risk to both the people and natural resources of Michigan with little promise of reward for none other than the company itself.

"Perrier stands to clear $.5 to $1.8 million per day," wrote Dennis Schornack, the special advisor of Strategic Initiatives for the Office of the Governor, in a September 2000 memo to Gov. Engler. "Profitability is directly related to the price paid for the raw material which, in this case, is free."

The DEQ faces a difficult challenge in balancing Perrier’s business interest with the Public Trust and reasonable water conservation efforts. The department must, however, accomplish this goal in order to effectively manage Michigan’s water resources now, and in the future, when fresh water resources are more valuable and in greater demand.

About the Institute
The Michigan Land Use Institute is an independent, nonprofit research, educational and service organization founded in 1995. Since then, more than 2,200 households, businesses, and organizations have joined in support of the Institute's mission is to establish an approach to economic development that strengthens communities, enhances opportunity, and protects Michigan's unmatched natural resources. The Institute’s aim from the beginning has been to help Michigan avoid the patterns of development that cause pollution, loss of community, rising costs to individuals and governments, and a deteriorating quality of life.

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