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Water Privatization: The Struggle To Stop Nestlé’s Groundwater Grab Continues

This blog is part of FLOW’s 2020 Annual Report, which you can read here.

For years, a fight has been brewing over public water worldwide. From Michigan to drought-stricken California, to Canada, to Germany, and beyond, the Nestlé corporation is a key player in a worldwide effort to privatize our finite water resources, and then sell it back to us in plastic bottles—in Michigan’s case, in and outside the Great Lakes Basin.

FLOW and our allies, including Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, continue to call on the state of Michigan to withdraw the permit for Nestlé’s groundwater extraction in Mecosta County. On June 17, 2020, FLOW and MCWC co-hosted a webinar that provided frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge the Swiss-based corporate giant in its quest to expand its extraction of groundwater in mid-Michigan. Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup—while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan.

FLOW submitted formal comments to the state on January 30, 2020, citing deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by Nestlé. FLOW demonstrated that the plan’s failure to adequately address hydrological effects leads to the perverse outcome that the monitoring plan will mask, rather than reveal, the actual adverse impacts of the pumping allowed by the permit at issue. “Michigan waters are held by the state as sovereign,” FLOW founder and president Jim Olson said, “meaning, held for all of Michigan’s citizens, so by its very nature, a monitoring plan must be fully transparent, independent, reliable, and accurate to collect data and understand existing hydrologic, geologic, and ecological conditions.”

On November 20, 2020, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) dismissed a case challenging the state permit issued to Nestlé in 2018 for increased water withdrawals from springs in Osceola County. The announcement also dismissed more than 80,000 comments EGLE received opposing the permit. FLOW and MCWC believe it is the duty of the state to make sure that multinational corporations like Nestlé don’t privatize public water and don’t harm water resources in their water bottling operations.

“If anything is important to the people of Michigan, I don’t care what party you’re in, it’s water,” said Olson, who has led the legal fight against Nestlé since the early 2000s.

State of Michigan Dodges Decision, Nestlé Dodges the Rule of Law

In a baffling decision announced November 20, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) dismissed a contested case brought by citizens challenging the state permit issued to Nestlé Waters North America in 2018 for increased water withdrawals from springs north of Evart, in Osceola County’s Osceola Township.

The announcement also, in effect, dismissed the more than 80,000 comments EGLE received opposing the permit (only 75 comments were in favor), the testimony of hundreds of citizens opposing the permit at a public hearing in 2017, and the thousands of hours of effort put into the permit challenge by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and their allies.

The EGLE decision, which outraged MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band, was perplexing because it came at the end of a permit process conducted by the agency and its predecessor, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). EGLE itself legitimized the two-year public hearing and comment and administrative decision process on the permit, only to say at the end of the process that it was inconsistent with, and not required by, the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead, said EGLE Director Liesl Clark, MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band should have gone directly to court and pursued legal action. 

FLOW supported the citizen parties in the administrative contested case proceeding on the permit, stressing that EGLE had erred in granting Nestlé the permit. The appeal hinged largely on EGLE’s overly expansive interpretation of the law that would lead to significant impacts to Michigan’s cold headwater creeks and wetlands. That statute says an applicant can receive a permit only if it provides real-world impacts analysis of effects, not just a model, for large-volume withdrawals from headwater creeks and wetlands for export as bottled water. Nestlé relied on a model, and EGLE acquiesced. FLOW also submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by Nestlé.

Beginning the permit challenge in the courts, rather than through an administratively contested case, would turn the process into even more of a David vs. Goliath conflict. MCWC did just that in a 2003 court case at great cost and sacrifice and ultimately won, reducing Nestlé’s permitted pumping by more than half. Costs to a grassroots environment group for legal action, however, are prohibitive, a reality to which EGLE was unfortunately indifferent. Nonetheless, the opposition continues to discuss the way forward.

Will Michigan Allow Nestlé to Operate below the Ground and above the Law?

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

In the coming weeks, Liesl Clark, the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—and ultimately, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer—will make the final decision required by state law on a Nestlé water bottling permit to remove another 210 million gallons of groundwater a year virtually for free from the directly connected headwaters of Twin and Chippewa creeks just north of Evart, in Osceola County. The administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder supported the permit through the loose interpretation of Michigan’s 2008 groundwater law and acceptance of a model submitted by Nestlé that underestimated impacts. And the approval came despite more than 80,000 public comments against the permit, with just 75 people in favor.

The courts in a separate 2003-2005 case in neighboring Mecosta County over Nestlé’s removal of water from the headwaters of a stream and several lakes found that computer models were not reliable. The only way a model can be used to gauge environmental impacts, the courts ruled, is to verify the estimates of the model with actual measurements of flows and levels of the streams before and during pumping. From the measurements, the effects of flows and levels can be readily calculated, and the actual impacts determined. If this is not done, the impacts in the real world will not be determined, and any resulting decision would be inconsistent with required scientific methodology, and the law.

In 2008, Michigan enacted its first groundwater withdrawal law and amended the Safe Drinking Water Act that imposed specific standards for EGLE to apply to well permit applications to take groundwater for bottled water operations. One critical standard requires that for a decision to be reasonable and lawful, the decision must be based on existing hydrogeological conditions before and during pumping, as well as on predicted conditions. In other words, there must be measurements and calculations of the effects of pumping and, if a model is used to estimate effects, of predicted conditions that are substantiated by the calculations. This is exactly what the courts decided and why this standard is in the statute. Models without calculated effects based on actual observation cannot be used in authorizing a permit. Yet this is exactly what happened when EGLE and the administrative law judge recommended approval of the permit. It was done without the required calculations and scientific methodology in accordance with the 2008 law. Without this verification, the model cannot be relied on to issue the permit.

The question now before Governor Whitmer and Director Clark is: Will they allow Nestlé to slide under the legal threshold required for the groundwater extraction permit? Their answer will have a lasting impact on the future of Michigan groundwater, lakes, streams, and wetlands. In a recent news release, state officials conceded that the upcoming decision must be based on science and the legal standards that apply. The Governor and Director Clark are under the spotlight to see whether they will uphold the true intent of the 2008 law to demand calculated effects, not just a model, for large-volume withdrawals from our headwater creeks and wetlands for export as bottled water.

Their decision will be nothing less than a litmus test on whether the Whitmer administration and EGLE will follow the rule of law that protects the waters of Michigan or follow the bias of the Snyder administration to shave the facts and law in favor of business over our state’s water, environment, and public health.

Take Action: Tell the State of Michigan to Stop the Nestlé Groundwater Grab — Please click here to take action today to stop this unlawful capture of the public’s water. The Director of the Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has the final say on the Nestlé permit. But EGLE has moved to dismiss citizen concerns. Please take action now to write EGLE Director Liesl Clark, as well as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to uphold the law and their roles as trustees of our public water by rejecting the Nestlé permit once and for all.

Learn More: FLOW and the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation co-hosted a one-hour webinar (You can watch it here) on June 17, 2020, providing frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge Nestlé, the Swiss-based corporate giant, in its quest to expand its groundwater grab in Michigan. Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup—while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan. Presenters included: Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and  Legal Advisor, and MCWC President Peggy Case.

FLOW, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to Host Webinar on Nestlé: Stopping the Groundwater Grab

The public is invited to join FLOW and the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation as we co-host a one-hour webinar on Wednesday, June 17, at 1 p.m., providing frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge Nestlé, the Swiss-based corporate giant, in its quest to expand its groundwater grab in Michigan.

Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup — while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan.

Presenters will include:

  • Jim Olson, President & Legal Advisor, FLOW
  • Peggy Case, President, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

Register for the June 17 event: Click here to reserve your spot for the Zoom webinar.

Take action today! The public also is invited to take action today to help stop this unlawful capture of the public’s water. Click this link to learn more about the issue and personalize our template email to Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy Director Liesl Clark, as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to uphold the law and their roles as trustees of our public water by rejecting the Nestlé permit once and for all.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation Calls on Governor, EGLE Director to Withdraw Permit for Nestlé’s Water Grab

Peggy Case, MCWC

By Peggy Case, President, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

Rarely does a ruling by a state Administrative Law Judge overturn a permit issued by a state agency. In the contested case hearing on the Nestlé permit to withdraw more than 500,000 gallons of water per day from a White Pine Springs well near Evart, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) had hoped the administrative law judge would reverse the former Snyder administration’s unwarranted permission for Nestlé’s permit.

But on April 24, the administrative law judge in the case before the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued a proposal for decision that would uphold the permit, and recommended that Liesl Clark, Director of EGLE, render a final decision in Nestlé’s favor. Fortunately, the decision is only a proposal, and our attorneys have advised us that MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band have a right to file exceptions. So we are urging Director Clark and the Whitmer Administration to reject the footloose interpretation of Michigan’s water laws for Nestlé to sell another 210 million gallons of bottled water per year from the headwaters of our lakes and streams.

FLOW ACTION ALERT: Please take action now to write EGLE Director Liesl Clark, as well as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to uphold the law and their roles as trustees of our public water by rejecting the Nestlé permit once and for all.

The proposal from the judge is full of errors and interpretations and relies on a model based on assumptions, not actual calculations of the effects, that tipped the cup toward Nestlé. We intend to demonstrate these errors through the filing of exceptions as provided by law. We trust Director Clark and the administration will reject the permit, and follow the legal duty resting with EGLE to apply our water law standards strictly, the way they were intended.

This proceeding and case started with the Snyder Administration’s Department of Environmental Quality when it granted the permit in April 2018, despite compelling legal arguments and massive public opposition. Today, we have new leadership and a new Director at the helm of EGLE.

The Governor and Attorney General campaigned on a promise to change the way we do business in Michigan when it comes to protecting water resources and promoting water justice. Unfortunately, to date, the administration through EGLE and the Attorney General’s office has continued to defend the Nestlé permit and filed a brief asking to throw out our contested case and grant the permit. This is difficult to comprehend when we consider that in the spring of 2017, 600 people opposed to the permit drove or took buses from all over the state to attend the hearing. Citizens submitted more than 80,000 comments opposing that permit in the first place.

We know this Administration can do better in support of the voters, the water, and the damaged ecosystem in Osceola Township. It can do better than ignore the injustice in Flint where many households are still not assured of clean, affordable tap water. It can do better than give away another 210 million gallons of water a year to Nestlé while thousands of homes in Detroit still do not have running water.

In 2005, in relation to a lawsuit MCWC filed in Mecosta County in 2000, a Michigan appeals court upheld the science and law that 400 gallons per minute from a well in a Michigan glacial headwater spring, wetlands, or creek system causes substantial harm. The court did so because date before, during, and after pumping on the withdrawals and pumping rates showed a direct correlation of pumping at 200 to 400 gallons per minute and drops in flows and levels and serious impacts. But when the 2018 permit was issued, the data was lacking, and what data existed was not used to calculate effects but fed into a computer model targeted to find little harm.

By filing the exceptions and legal brief with the Director, we are urging her to conduct an independent review of the facts and loose interpretations, and overturn a permit that was based on twisting those facts and the law to favor private gain at the expense of our public water.

MCWC and the GTB ask the Whitmer administration, the Attorney General and Director Clark to return state government to respecting the paramount duty of our state leaders to protect our state’s water and live up to the public trust responsibilities granted by our State Constitution and water laws.

We expect the Attorney General and the Director of EGLE to take this opportunity, presented to them by our persistent work, to actually look at the record and the laws in question and do what is right for the people and our precious waters. We expect them to withdraw this permit for Nestlé’s water grab and direct their energies to repairing the injustices of lack of affordable water access in communities such as Detroit and Flint.

Note from FLOW: To support MCWC’s vital work to protect our public trust waters from privatization and commercialization, click here.

FLOW Challenges Nestlé Monitoring Plan; Says it Masks True Impacts of Pumping

FLOW has submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by water-bottling giant Nestlé.

FLOW’s comments to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are regarding Nestlé Permit 1701, PW 101, and the bottled-water giant’s proposed joint agreement April 2019 monitoring plan in White Pine Springs, Osceola Township.

The comments, addressed to EGLE director Liesl Clark, EGLE supervisor James Gamble, and EGLE section manager Michael Alexander, state that the plan’s failure to adequately address hydrological effects results in the perverse outcome that the Monitoring Plan will essentially mask, rather than reveal, the actual effects and adverse impacts of the pumping allowed by the permit at issue. As a result, the current plan does not comply with General Condition 5 of Permit 1701

“Michigan waters are held by the State as sovereign,” FLOW Founder and President Jim Olson said, “meaning for all of its citizens, so by its very nature a monitoring plan must be fully transparent, independent, reliable, and accurate to collect data and understand existing hydrologic, geologic, and ecological conditions … Mere predictions based on Nestlé’s model without a vigorous monitoring plan subject to public participation and independent verification will not achieve the purpose of the law or Condition 5 of the permit.

FLOW submitted these comments, along with additional comments prepared by Robert Otwell, Ph.D., as part of its continuing scientific and legal review and comments on the above Nestlé Application, Permit 1701, and Conditions to Permit 1701.

In his comments, Otwell observed, “The plan indicates the first monitoring report will describe baseline conditions. The baseline conditions should be those collected in the early 2000s, before significant pumping had taken place. Recognition needs to be made that because of the on-going pumping of PW-101, monitoring data collected based on the proposed plan will have lower stream flows and lower groundwater levels than natural conditions.”

Nestlé won approval from former Gov. Rick Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2018 to more than double its pumping from 150 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm, or 576,000 gallons per day (gpd), in Osceola County just north of Evart, Michigan. Production Well PWB101, White Pine Springs Site, as it is known, is located between two cold water Muskegon River tributary creeks, Twin and Chippewa Creeks. When Nestlé applied for this pumping increase using the state’s computer water withdrawal assessment tool, it failed. Nestlé then requested and obtained a site-specific review by DEQ staff that showed only minimal declines in water levels in the summer of 2016. That led the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians to contest the permit.