Let's start with the fact that bottled water is history's greatest scam.
For the most part, bottled water companies take a product any American can access at the tap for pennies -- at least 25% of bottled water comes from municipal drinking sources -- slap it into a plastic bottle, and charge dollars for the same quantity.
America's obsession with bottled water creates tons of plastic waste each year, and in almost every circumstances -- barring instances like the Flint water crisis, for example -- bottled water is entirely unnecessary.
And then let's ask why on earth the State of Michigan should allow multinational conglomerate Nestle to make off with billions of gallons of our water each year, making serious bank while paying Michigan just a $200 administrative fee for the privilege.
It's a perfect business set-up: Pay next to nothing for a product, throw in some marketing, and sell at an exponentially higher mark-up. It's a business gambit so one-sided it would make Tom Sawyer blush.
Nestle has been pumping spring water for its nonsensically named "Ice Mountain" brand at its Stanwood site near Evart, Mich. -- neither a region nor a state known for mountainous terrain -- for about 12 years. Stanwood is one of three Nestle water-pumping locations in Michigan. Two years ago, the company applied for an increase in the amount of water it is permitted to pump at one of its wells from 150 to 400 gallons per minute, but at present, the company is allowed to pump 218 gallons per minute, a limit that is the result of a lawsuit filed by conservationists. So its apparent solution is to increase the siphoning from a different well in the area.
This 167% increase would be a much larger draw on the state's water resources.
Despite the frivolity of the bottled water industry, it's clearly here to stay. Bottled water revenue is more than $15 billion per year, with substantial annual increases expected.
But we need to get smart about it.
After perfunctorily greenlighting Nestle’s request last year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is taking a longer look at the company’s request for a permit increase. At the behest of new director, Heidi Grether, MDEQ has extended the public comment period for the request and asked the company to provide further documentation that its stepped-up pumping operation wouldn't cause harm to Evart or its environs
That's what MDEQ ought to be doing, and we're glad to see Grether's instincts, in this case, are good.
Because Nestle owns the wells it's pumping, the company pays just $200 in administrative fees to authorize its groundwater extraction, plus a $5,000 one-time-fee for permit application review.
And that's the bigger problem here -- a regulatory framework, created before bottled water became a multi-billion industry, that tends to assume Michiganders would pump groundwater for personal, municipal or direct business use.
Groundwater isn't regulated like surface water; rather, its use is governed by an old principle that allows "reasonable use" of groundwater, as long as that use doesn't permanently alter the availability or accessibility of water for other users. Does extracting drinking water violate that standard? Well ... it's hard to say.
Thus far, Nestle's water extraction hasn't seemed to limit or harm the availability of water for Evart and the surrounding area. But some experts note that because Ice Mountain water is shipped out of state, it's not returned to the water table -- and while Nestle's application says that increased water withdrawal will have "minimal" impact on nearby streams, some critics have noted that any pumping operation should have no effect on Michigan's water supply.
Fresh water is one of Michigan's most valuable assets. Any conversation about the scarcity or value of Michigan's water should take into account that clean, potable water will become an increasingly valuable resource.
But fresh water is also one of Michigan's most marketable commodities.
Balanced against this, of course, is jobs. Nestle's Evart plant employs about 200; a planned $36-million expansion would create about 20 additional jobs. In a county of just 23,000, that's a lot.
Balancing our state's future -- safeguarding our resources and our environment -- with our economic interests is the reason we have regulation. And it's the kind of nuts-and-bolts work lawmakers should embrace. There's a solution here, if only they'll chose to find it.
Contact Nancy Kaffer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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