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Michigan's Attorney General Weighs In: Perrier Plan is a Great Lakes Diversion

Granholm opinion highlights inconsistent state water policy

October 5, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Last March, after it had advertised "crystal clear well water" for sale in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the village of Webster, New York received a curt letter from Michigan’s Republican Governor John Engler. 

"Webster is located within the (Great Lakes) basin," Gov. Engler warned Wilbur Bey, the village’s mayor, citing provisions of the 1986 federal Water Resources Development Act. "Even though the water in question is groundwater, it appears to be hydraulically connected to Lake Ontario. If this proves to be the case, then the diversion or export of this water out of the basin will require the approval of each governor from the eight Great Lakes states."

Yet in August 2001, just five months later, the Engler administration approved the Perrier company’s application to withdraw and sell some 105 million gallons of groundwater from Michigan’s Mecosta County. The sale of Michigan’s groundwater, complained Webster village officials, appeared almost identical to the sale in New York that Mr. Engler blocked.

"There is a great disparity in the way this is working," said David Galeazzo, Webster’s Superintendent of Public Works, in an interview. "On the one hand he tells us if we want to sell water from our system, we have to get approval from governors of all eight states. Now, all of a sudden, the great governor of the state of Michigan is bypassing the procedures. How is the political game played? I’d like to learn it so I can do the same thing."

Last month Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s Democratic Attorney General and a leading candidate for governor, agreed. After weeks of deliberation, Ms. Granholm concluded in a formal opinion that the Perrier Group’s bid to bottle and sell millions of gallons of ground water from central Michigan was a diversion of Great Lakes water as defined by the federal Water Resources Development Act. She said the diversion required unanimous approval from the governors of the eight Great Lakes states.

In a September 13, 2001 letter to Mr. Engler and to several state legislators, Ms. Granholm urged Mr. Engler to "consult with the other Great Lakes governors and premiers to determine whether and to what extent this and similar water removal proposals should be permitted."

"Such a review," Ms. Granholm added, "will best balance the state’s commitment to regional protection of the Great Lakes, the public’s concern that Great Lakes water not be turned into a commodity, and the undisputed need to permit productive and efficient use of the water resources of the Great Lakes Basin."

Not surprisingly the governor and his environmental aides summarily rejected Ms. Granholm’s suggestion. "This opinion isn’t something the administration asked for," said Matt Resch, one of the governor’s spokesman. "It doesn’t change the governor’s view of the situation."

The dispute, however, shows no sign of ending there. Critics of the Perrier proposal noted the apparent inconsistency in the governor’s long-standing policy of protecting Great Lakes water. Mr. Engler, for instance, personally intervened and helped to quash a Canadian company’s bid in 1998 to haul tanker loads of Lake Superior off to Asia.

And when the community of Lowell, Indiana asked permission in 1992 to tap Lake Michigan in hopes of gaining access to a safe public drinking water supply, Gov. Engler also vetoed the request.

Meanwhile the Engler administration not only approved Perrier’s water drilling permit in Michigan, it also awarded the company a taxpayer-financed subsidy package of infrastructure improvements, worker training, and property and education tax abatements worth $9.6 million.

In her letter to the governor, Ms. Granholm noted the difference in Mr. Engler’s treatment of water bottling proposals inside and outside of Michigan. "The recent proposal by the Village of Webster, New York, is a good example," she wrote. "Swift opposition by the state of Michigan to that proposal sent a clear signal that we are willing to protect Great Lakes water. But that signal must not be interpreted as self-serving, aimed only at proposals to sell Great Lakes water removed from other states."

The Michigan Attorney General’s opinion is almost certain to strengthen the views of lawmakers in Michigan and in other states who oppose the Perrier plan. Duane Cheney, a Democratic state Representative from Indiana, protested Perrier’s proposal in a letter last July to Mr. Engler and to Indiana’s Democratic Governor Frank O’Bannon.

"Michigan should not be allowed to sell any amount of water commercially for local benefit, especially when you consider that many cities and towns in our state are prohibited from using Lake Michigan water for drinking water," Rep. Cheney said.

"If we allow one state to derive a commercial benefit from the sale of a natural resource shared by many states, the result will be a drastic reduction in our region's water quantities, which would lead to further catastrophes when that water is needed to address serious shortfalls in local supplies."

Similarly, Representative Julie Dennis, a Democratic member of the Michigan House from Muskegon, has publicly opposed Perrier’s water diversion and sale and is considering introducing new legislation to strengthen Michigan’s water policy.

Ms. Dennis and other Michigan lawmakers are concerned for valid reasons. The Perrier Group’s $60 million bottling plant in Mecosta County in central Michigan is the state’s largest groundwater bottling facility. It dwarfs other bottling plants in Michigan.

As the leading water bottler in the nation, the Perrier Group’s market share is twice that of its nearest competitor. The company’s growth represents 34 percent of the industry’s expansion in the United States from 1992 to 2000, according to industry analysts.

Those kind of numbers encouraged some central Michigan residents and business leaders to embrace the company’s plan as a way to diversify the local economy with a clean, stable industry. The Perrier Group plans to start off with approximately 45 workers earning up to $18 per hour.

But a far larger number of residents, led by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, are concerned about the broader effects of Perrier’s high-capacity well and whether the Perrier Group has the right to transfer Great Lakes water out of a central Michigan watershed for commercial sale nationwide.

The Water Resources Development Act was approved by Congress in 1986 to conserve the limited quantity of water available in the Great Lakes. The law requires the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, and Michigan to collectively endorse any plan to tap Great Lakes water, including rivers and streams, for use outside the basin.

The law, however, left murky the rules for withdrawing or diverting groundwater for sale. That’s the reason that Michigan state Senator Christopher Dingell (D-Trenton), state Representative William O’Neil (D-Allen Park), Ms. Dennis, and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation asked Michigan’s Attorney General if the federal law applied to Perrier’s plan.

For her part, Ms. Granholm’s opinion was unambiguous. "The proposal," she said, "would result in the withdrawal of ground water from a spring that feeds the Little Muskegon River, a tributary to Lake Michigan."

"Unless an effective decision-making system is utilized for dealing with such proposals," Ms. Granholm concluded, "I foresee a huge increase in Great Lakes water withdrawals over the next few years."
Andrew Guy, an environmental journalist and grassroots organizer, is based in the Michigan Land Use Institute’s new regional office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at 616-308-6250 or andy@mlui.org.

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