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Michigan Gives Perrier Permission

Lack of standards exposes state to thirsty markets

August 20, 2001 | By Patty Cantrell
and Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The state of Michigan took a fateful step Wednesday, Aug. 16, when it gave the Perrier Group of America permission to pump 200 gallons of groundwater per minute from central Michigan and sell it nationwide. Perrier intends to expand to 400 gallons per minute as soon as possible. At that rate, Perrier — the bull of the international bottled water market — will withdraw more fresh water annually from the Great Lakes basin than a Canadian company, the Nova Group Inc., proposed in 1998 to haul in tankers each year to Asia. Michigan Governor John Engler’s administration opposed — and thereby helped squash — the Nova Group’s proposal. But the state actually encouraged Perrier to drill in Michigan, extending a tax break worth approximately $2.2 million to sweeten the deal.

This conflict in Michigan’s water policy — between fighting off the tankers and bringing on the water bottlers — may be the greatest and most immediate threat to the state’s precious water supplies. Without clear and consistent rules for water withdrawals and exports, the state leaves itself open not only to water shortages at home but also, under new international trade laws, to water marketing schemes from across the globe. Perrier’s permit serves as a wake-up call for the Legislature to combine economic development with environmental responsibility to ensure Michigan’s water future.

Until the state Legislature takes action to safeguard groundwater, ambitious Great Lakes protection plans, such as Annex 2001 — an agreement among state and provincial governments to safeguard the basin’s water — may be useless for protecting residents from water shortages and thirsty water markets. Only when Michigan puts the Annex’s guidelines into a meaningful water conservation statute will Gov. Engler be able to back up his declaration of undying commitment to the Great Lakes.

"Today we need to guard that water like gold," Gov. Engler told a group of voters recently in Muskegon. But issuing a blanket well drilling permit to Perrier — giving the company free commercial use of the state’s groundwater with virtually no regulatory oversight after the well is drilled — is not the way to do it.

The problem is that Michigan’s existing laws are concerned solely with water quality not how large users can affect the supply of water all around — from residential wells to subsurface moisture for forests and streams to Great Lakes levels. Perrier’s operation is just one of more than 10,500 large-scale groundwater wells in Michigan that operate with little state oversight and no user fees. Parts of the state already are suffering from low water pressure and dry wells because large users — suburban areas, industrial agriculture, golf courses —take big unsupervised gulps equivalent to thousands of tankers sucking daily from the Great Lakes.

The Perrier permit also sets a legal precedent that other companies could use to take advantage of Michigan’s lack of conservation standards and invoke free trade rights. California-based Sun Belt Water, Inc., is using the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, as the foundation for a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against British Columbia. Sun Belt claims the province interfered with international law when it blocked a $10.5 billion deal to export Canadian water by tanker to southern California.

The fact that Perrier will take water out of the ground and sell it in individual bottles, rather than pump it out of the Great Lakes and haul it in tankers, makes little difference.

Policy makers and scientists know that Great Lakes groundwater and surface water are the same resource. In 1986, Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act. The Act did not restrict its scope to bulk sales of water from the lakes themselves. Instead it directed Great Lakes states to protect the region’s fresh water by developing common water conservation standards and prohibiting diversions of water for use outside the basin. Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm will soon issue a ruling on whether Perrier’s water withdrawal falls under the Act.

The Annex 2001 agreement also directs Great Lakes leaders to safeguard all water in the basin, where groundwater contributes directly to the overall water supply, including Great Lakes water levels. Gov. Engler recognized the groundwater connection in an April letter to Tom Ridge, governor of Pennsylvania, about an exemption in an earlier draft of Annex 2001 for smaller water withdrawals. Mr. Engler wrote he was concerned that the exemption did not take the potential adverse effects of groundwater withdrawals into account. The state and provincial leaders involved in Annex 2001 later removed the exemption.

Now that the leaders of eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces have signed Annex 2001, it is time for each to put the agreement into practice at home. In Michigan, that means developing a water protection statute that recognizes the need to safeguard water supplies — the state’s liquid gold — not just water safety.

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