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Great Lakes Supernova

State environmental agency decision nears for Perrier

July 12, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It was just three years ago that an Ontario-based company proposed a novel and alarming business venture: Scoop 156 million gallons of water out of Lake Superior every year and deliver it by tanker to Asia.

The company’s plan, by the aptly named Nova Group, was like a brilliant star. It vividly illuminated the growing global demand for clean fresh water, exposed Michigan’s surprisingly weak water law, and fired up citizens and elected leaders. Across Michigan the response was an emphatic, “No way!” The Nova Group eventually abandoned the idea.

As any astronomer knows, however, novas eventually fade and an even more imposing light emerges. Enter the Perrier Group of America, the bull of the bottled water market. The company, a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Nestle Company, proposes to drill into an underground reservoir in Mecosta County and sell up to 262 million gallons of Great Lakes water each year. That’s 106 million gallons more than what the Nova Group wanted — a virtual supernova in comparison. The Department of Environmental Quality, which is reviewing the company’s drilling proposal, could decide as early as next week.

Perrier’s plan to tap and bottle spring water from an immense underground reservoir has attracted enormous public attention in central Michigan. The company asserts that withdrawing so much water will not harm the environment or surrounding homeowners — a point hotly debated by critics and supporters.

Conservation groups, meanwhile, are asking penetrating questions about the wisdom of Michigan’s water law, which now allows a major transnational company to sell an invaluable and increasingly scarce public resource — clean, fresh water — essentially without paying anything for it. The DEQ’s review, based on the current law, is focused almost exclusively on whether Perrier’s well is technically sound and the water coming from it will not harm public health.

Frankly, in the 21st century, that makes no sense.

• Clean fresh water is a dwindling resource around the globe. At least a third of the planet’s six billion people do not have access to regular supplies of fresh water, and steady population growth promises more thirsty people.

• Global warming threatens to redistribute water supplies around the planet by increasing precipitation but also speeding evaporation, all of which may already be affecting the Great Lakes which are lower than they’ve been in decades.

• The political influence of the Great Lakes states is dwindling in Congress as House seats lost in the Midwest are picked up by states in the South and desert West. That means Michigan and other Upper Midwest states have less power to establish federal protections for the Great Lakes.

• Globalization and international economic treaties are weakening the authority of the United States to control trade in domestic natural resources. And none are more valuable this century than water. At $8 a gallon in convenience stores, bottled water already is six times more valuable than gasoline. And the demand for bottled water in the United States is growing 11 percent annually.

State residents rightfully see these as pressing issues and approach any proposal to divert large quantities of water from the Great Lakes basin with concern. Whether sucked from a lake or pumped from the ground, in Michigan all water is connected in a vast hydrological system. What’s more, underground aquifers, like the one Perrier is proposing to tap, are especially important here.

More than 700 million gallons of groundwater are pumped every day in Michigan for bathing, cooking, drinking, growing food, and making products. More than 45 percent of all Michigan families pump their water directly from the ground. More than 10,500 groundwater wells operate in Michigan, which is more than any other state.

Given these facts, you might expect Perrier’s proposal to attract some attention at the top levels in Lansing. It has, but for the wrong reasons.

On the one hand, Governor John Engler has sought in recent months to burnish his weak environmental record by portraying himself as a protector of the Great Lakes and fresh water. Late last month, for instance, Mr. Engler had this to say while dedicating a new Great Lakes research center in Muskegon. “It’s easy in Michigan to take fresh water for granted. Today, we need to guard that water like gold. It’s clearly our most precious and finest gift.”

On the other hand, the Engler administration views Perrier’s proposal to sell up to 262 million gallons of fresh water a year almost solely as healthy economic development. The company proposes to spend $100 million building a facility that employs 45 workers, adds to the local tax base, and generates little, if any, pollution. The administration is so enthusiastic that at one time state economic development authorities actually considered luring Perrier to Michigan with taxpayer-funded economic incentives.

Thus Perrier’s proposal, which takes advantage of Michigan’s weak water law and provides little public return for the use of a public resource, clearly represents a conflict for the governor with potentially serious political ramifications.

Late last year, Dennis Schornack, the governor’s special assistant for strategic initiatives, described some of the consequences and the extent of the administration’s internal debate in what he called a “conscience clearing” memorandum for Mr. Engler. “First, understand that we want Perrier to come to Michigan,” wrote Mr. Schornack. He added, though, that “if a Michigan Economic Growth Authority grant is given, Michigan won’t just be giving away the water, it will be paying a private and foreign-owned firm to take it away. The rhetoric, should this get public attention, would be focused on the Governor, and could derail our efforts on Great Lakes water management.”

Mr. Engler, of course, could quickly solve the dilemma and simultaneously enhance the public interest by seeing Perrier’s entrance into Michigan as a singular starting point for the Legislature to more clearly define the state’s water policy. Here are a number of steps that the governor should urge the Legislature to take:

1. Put a moratorium on the DEQ’s permit review pending a formal legislative evaluation of Perrier’s proposal that includes holding public hearings.

2. Design a new water protection statute. State water policy, focused almost solely on ensuring the quality of water, and not the quantity, is inadequate and needs to be modernized.

3. Expand and strengthen rules for reviewing and permitting new, high-capacity wells, such as those Perrier wants to drill, to ensure the safety and supply of groundwater.

4. Establish a Water Resources Trust Fund, similar to the existing Natural Resources Trust Fund, to enhance research, stewardship, quality, conservation, and restoration of Michigan’s waters. Just as the Natural Resources Trust Fund is supported by royalties from oil and gas development on public lands, the Water Resources Trust Fund will be supported by royalties from existing and future high capacity users of groundwater — a public resource. In this way, Michigan and its citizens will receive a financial and environmental return for the taking of water, a public economic good that is appreciating in value.

Andy Guy is an environmental journalist and organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him in Grand Rapids at our new regional office at andy@mlui.org or 616-308-6250.

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