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A “Small” Withdrawal?

Perrier plan raises critical questions about fresh water supply

April 23, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The term ‘Perrier’ is, like Nike’s swoosh emblem or McDonald’s golden arches, the quintessential mark of its trade. The global community associates athletic shoes with Nike, the world’s largest footwear company. We relate fast food with McDonalds, the planet’s premier burger stand. And, if revenues are any measure, we connect the Perrier Group of America, a division of the world’s largest food company, with the most essential beverage on earth — water.

This connection may intensify at the expense of the Great Lakes water supply. Perrier, the bull of the bottled water industry, proposes to establish a novel operation in Michigan. Their facilities, proposed for either Mecosta or Osceola counties in northern Michigan, would draw as much as 500 gallons per minute of groundwater that naturally flows through the heart of the Muskegon River watershed. The company would consume more groundwater than any other such bottling facility in the state.

Some residents and business leaders embrace the proposal as an opportunity to diversify the local economy with a clean, stable industry. Perrier plans to spend $60 million in central Michigan on facility development and promises to start with 45 workers earning an hourly wage topping out at $18. A local group of residents calling themselves Citizens for Jobs, Opportunity, and the Environment emerged in support of the project. Moreover, the state Economic Development Corporation cautiously helped Perrier establish contacts in the region.

The state agency was not solely concerned about Perrier’s standing in the community. Officials also recognized that legitimate economic, social, environmental, and political issues are being dropped on the Great Lakes water supply like giant explosive projectiles.

A Burst Over Water
Rampant population growth promises more thirsty people. BOOM! Climate change threatens to redistribute water around the globe. BOOM! Dwindling political representation in the Midwest means less power to lobby for Great Lakes protections. BANG! Insufficient science frustrates groundwater management. BOOM! Water scarcity problems already have occurred in Michigan, with groundwater shortages developing in Saginaw and Grand Rapids. KABOOM!

With so much heavy artillery bombarding the Great Lakes bunker, Perrier’s proposal to withdraw, for free, 720,000 gallons of water per day is like lobbing in one more live grenade. Right now, that grenade threatens to blow any conservation goals Michigan may have right out of the water.

The state’s lawmakers and natural resource managers continue to treat Great Lakes water as if it were an insignificant resource, as if we are living in an age of limitless supply. Michigan appears content to permit an infinite number of groundwater withdrawals — nearly 10,500 wells to date — regardless of pumping rates and absent any sound scientific understanding of the resource.

Ten Reasons to Modernize Michigan Water Policy
Is this smart? Hardly. Indeed, the legislature and state environmental officials need to immediately consider modernizing state water policy because of the following ten absolutely crucial factors.

First and foremost, groundwater is a linchpin of Michigan society. The state withdraws more than 700 million gallons of water per day for domestic use, to grow food, and to make products such as cars and medicine. This reliance is unique. Forty-five percent of Michigan’s population depends on subsurface water supplies and the state has more private wells than any other in the U.S. Further, more new wells were drilled in 1998 in Michigan than in any year previously recorded, proving that demand is on the rise.

Second, the state identified this sharp rise in local demand as a problem nine years ago when a special task force was convened to assess the risks confronting Michigan’s quality of life. Coordinated by the state Department of Natural Resources, the task force generated a report, Michigan’s Environment and Relative Risk, in which the withdrawal of groundwater for consumptive use was recognized as one of the most troublesome and poorly understood challenges to managing the state’s water.

Third, the report was right on target. Groundwater overdraft — the difference between consumption and replenishment — already has led to conflicts in parts of Saginaw and Kent counties. Many residents have been forced to re-drill wells at their own expense. Consequently, economic development is stymied by moratoriums on new irrigation wells in several Saginaw County townships — this in a region surrounded by 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater.

Fourth, these water shortages confirm that the science of groundwater hydrology in the Great Lakes region suffers from a serious lack of information, as was noted in a recent report by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a research and policy organization created in 1909 by the U.S. and Canada to resolve Great Lakes water issues. Scientists are not certain how much groundwater exists, or how the resource flows in and out of the interconnected system of aquifers — underground water formations pressurized by the weight of the layers of sand, gravel, and stone that lie above and below. 

Fifth, ground water and surface water are inextricably connected. And scientists predict that surface water levels will fall. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 conducted climate change research on the Great Lakes Basin and found that freshwater flow in the region could decrease by 20 percent with a warming of four degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in as much as an eight foot drop in water levels on the big lakes by 2100.

Sixth, political power is ebbing in the Great Lakes, falling away from Midwest states and towards the gradually drier, and increasingly thirsty southwest. Every Great Lakes state, with the exception of Minnesota, lost congressional representation with the 2000 census. At the same time, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, and Texas all gained representation.

Seventh, this political realignment already threatens to erode Great Lakes conservation efforts. Speaking at a Republican fundraising luncheon in Traverse City, MI on March 21, 2000, House Majority leader Dick Armey of Texas “joked” about solving a three-year Texas drought with Great Lakes water. With a candid remark that foreshadows future diversion pressure, Mr. Armey said, “I’m from Texas and down there we understand that whiskey is for drinking and the water is for fighting over. If we get (federal control over Great Lakes water), we’re not going to be buying it. We’ll be stealing it. You are going to have protect your Great Lakes.”

Eighth, domestic demand is not the only threat. Globally, water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 — more than double the rate of population growth — and continues to grow rapidly as agricultural, industrial, and domestic demand increases. Within 25 years, nearly two billion people will live in regions that experience absolute water scarcity according to research by the World Bank.

Ninth, the success of the bottled water business is a clear indication of this growing demand. The industry is the fastest growing beverage market in the nation, a trend that is expected to continue with Perrier leading the charge. The company is nearly three times larger than their closest competitor, manages 75 springs across the U.S. alone, and sales exceed $1.5 billion a year, more than one-third of the $4 billion national market. 

And tenth, water-bottling facilities in particular may pose a unique threat to Great Lakes conservation efforts. According to the International Joint Commission, when water is “captured” and entered into commerce, it may attract obligations under international agreements. Undoubtedly, Perrier’s operation, and others like it, would shift a certain degree of decision-making away from the sovereign state of Michigan and toward the global markets. To be certain, global trade laws – World Trade Organization agreements, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or the North American Free Trade Agreement – cannot prevent the U.S. and Canada from protecting Great Lakes water. Further, water in its natural state (e.g., in a lake, river, or aquifer) is not included within the scope of any of these trade agreements.

Water Shapes Michigan’s Global Identity
For 10 compelling reasons, then, Perrier’s arrival should encourage Michigan, and each Great Lakes state, to shape its new identity in the global economy. Like oil to Iraq, rain forests to Brazil, and lobsters to the northeastern seaboard, water is the Great Lake’s unique and exhaustible resource.

As former Congressman Jim Wright wrote in his 1966 book titled the Coming Water Famine, “The crisis of our diminishing water resources is just as severe (if less obviously immediate) as any wartime crisis we have ever faced. Our survival is just as much at stake as it was at the time of Pearl Harbor, or the Argonne, or Gettysburg, or Saratoga.” To best conserve the Great Lakes clean fresh water supply, and avoid the impending global water war, Michigan must develop the awareness, the legal tools, and the modern public policy that is absolutely necessary to survive in a world that’s changing so dramatically.

Andy Guy is the Michigan Land Use Institute's journalist and organizer in Grand Rapids. Reach him at 616-308-6250 or aguy@mlui.org.

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