Tag: bottled water

Great Lakes groups band together to challenge Nestlé and water crises in Flint and beyond

“My grandson that’s not here tonight, that’s twelve years old, he was to be an academic ambassador to go to Washington in the year 2014 and 2015. Well he was an A-B student but by the time the lead began to corrode his brain, he was no longer an A-B student. He was a D-E-F student,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of her grandson, one of the thousands of children affected by the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. Bishop Jefferson, who is with the Flint group CAUTION, was one of the speakers on the Friday night panel of the Water is Life: Strengthening our Great Lakes Commons this past weekend.

Bishop Jefferson has been a pastor for 27 years and an activist for 25 years. She is married with ten children and ten grandchildren. She was one of the first signers of the emergency manager lawsuitagainst Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2013. Her passionate talk brought tears to many eyes of the 200 people gathered at Woodside Church for the summit. At the same time her talk energized the audience. Her message of doing this work for all children and the importance of coming together reverberated among the crowd. Bishop Jefferson said of the gathering, “Tonight we make history. We did something they didn’t want us to do and that was to come together.”

Water justice for Great Lakes communities

Maude Barlow gave an important keynote speech on Friday night on water justice struggles around the world and her work with other water warriors to have the UN recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. Jim Olson from FLOW gave an impassioned talk about Nestle in Michigan and the importance of the public trust. Indigenous lawyer Holly Bird talked about her work with the legal team for Standing Rock, water law from an Indigenous perspective, that governments need to honor the relationships that Indigenous people have with the water and how that can be done without someone controlling or owning water.

(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians)

Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board, who many affectionately call Mama Lila, talked about how the water fights are racialized in Michigan. “The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized. We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community.” She pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to “wage love”.

(Photo right: Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board)

In Canada, the lack of clean water is also often racialized. There are routinely more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations, some of which have been in place for nearly two decades. At the start of her talk on Saturday, Sylvia Plain from Aamjiwnaang First Nation taught the audience how to say “aanii” which is “hello” in Anishinaabe. The Great Lakes region is predominantly Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami). She talked about how Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had methylmercury in the sediments in their river for a couple of decades. Plain also talked about how the Anishinaabe have cared for the waters and land for thousands of years.

Wearing a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt, Saturday’s keynote speaker (starts at 23:00) Claire McClinton from Flint Democracy Defense League, further described the water crisis in Flint. She pointed out, “In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap.”

(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Claire McClinton of Flint Democracy Defense League)

Marian Kramer of Highland Park Human Rights Coalition and Michigan Welfare Rights Organizationtold Saturday’s audience about her work to fight the shutoffs in Highland Park, a city within Metro Detroit where at one point half of the homes had their water shut off.

Nestle’s bottled water takings

Rob Case from Wellington Water Watchers of Ontario and Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation both talked about their grassroots organizations and the local resistance to Nestle’s bottling operations. Peggy Case pointed to the larger issue of the privatization and the commodification of water. “The dots have to be connected. We can’t just look at bottled water. The right to water is being challenged everywhere. The privatization of water is a key piece of what’s going on in Flint,” she explained. The state of Michigan is suing the city of FLint for refusing to sign a 30-year agreement that requires the city to pay for a private pipeline to Detroit that will not be used by residents. 

In Evart, Michigan, two hours northwest from Flint, Nestlé pumps more than 130 million gallons (492 million litres) of water a year from the town to bottle and sell to consumers across the state and country. Last year, the corporation applied to increase its pumping by 60 percent. Nestlé’s current pumping and proposed expansion threatens surrounding wetlands and wildlife in the region, which at the same time violates an 181-year-old treaty that requires Michigan state to protect the habitat for the Grand Traverse Band and Saginaw Chippewa tribal use.

Nestlé continues pumping up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) a day in southern Ontario despite the fact that both of its permits have expired – one permit expired in August and the other expired more than a year ago. The Ontario government is required to consult with communities on Nestlé’s bottled water applications but still has not done so. The Ontario government recently made some changes to the bottled water permitting system including a two-year moratorium on bottled water takings and increased bottled water taking fees (from $3.71 to 503.71 per million litres) but local groups and residents want more. They are calling for a phase out of bottled water takings to protect drinking water. The Council of Canadians is calling Nestle’s and other bottled water takings to be an election issue in next year’s Ontario election.

Summit speakers and participants were outraged that governments allow Nestlé and other water companies to take, control and sell water for a profit while failing to secure clean water for residents in Flint, Detroit, and many Indigenous nations.

Days before the summit, the Guardian reported that Nestle only pays an administrative fee of $200 in Michigan while Detroit resident Nicole Hill, a mother of three, has her water shut off every few months and has to pay “more than $200 a month” for water.

During the summit, participants took a pledge to boycott Nestle and single-use bottles of water. Immediately after the summit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation announced the organization was joining the boycott. To join the boycott, click here.

NAFTA and the commodification of water

Trade agreements like NAFTA perpetuate and entrench the commodification and privatization of water. Water is defined as a “tradeable good,” “service” and “investment” in NAFTA. Water must be removed as a tradeable good, service or investment in any renegotiated NAFTA deal.

As a tradeable good, NAFTA dramatically limits a government’s ability to stop provinces and states from selling water and renders government powerless to turn off the tap. Removing water as a “service” would help protect water as an essential public service. When services are provided by private corporations, NAFTA provisions limit the involvement of the public sector. Removing water as an “investment” and excluding NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions would make it much harder for foreign corporations to use trade treaties to sue governments for laws or policies that protect water. Canada has already been sued for millions of dollars for laws protecting water.

A vow to end to Nestlé water takings

Over the weekend, participants of the summit listened to these moving and inspiring presentations and participated in workshops on Blue Communities, challenging the corporate control of water, the colonial enclosure of water and more. The gathering included local and Great Lakes residents as well as water justice, Great Lakes and grassroots organizations including our Guelph and Centre-Wellington Chapters of the Council of Canadians.

One thing was clear at the end of the summit: participants were ready to take action to end to Nestlé’s bottled water takings in Great Lakes, work to have the human right to water implemented and bring water justice to all who live around the lakes.
To watch the videos from the summit, visit FLOW’s Facebook page.

Emma Lui's picture
Emma Lui is a FLOW board member and Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians. To learn more about her and her work, please visit the Council of Canadians website.

Bottled water: A threat to public water, but there’s hope

In his timely and profound new book, Unbottled, Daniel Jaffee tackles the threat that commercialized, packaged water poses to water as a public good. His message is more than an alarm bell – it offers hope and suggestions on how to fight back.

Maude Barlow, a globally recognized water steward and friend of FLOW, calls the book “a superbly researched argument that our growing dependence on bottled water is not only creating major environmental crises but also weakening the whole notion of public water services—thereby undermining the human right to water.”

Daniel Jaffee is an environmental and rural sociologist and Associate Professor of Sociology at Portland State University. His first book, Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival, received the C. Wright Mills Book Award. He received his Ph.D. in 2006 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

FLOW recently interviewed Jaffee about the critical issues raised by Unbottled.

How do you explain the difference between bottled water and water used to make beer, juice, etc.? It can be difficult to understand that there’s a difference

While it might seem obvious, bottled water is essentially equivalent to tap water in one crucial way: it is nothing but water. In contrast with all other beverages, it directly substitutes for a good that is essential to life, vital for public health, and a key function of local government. The unspoken but fundamental claim of bottled water is to be a perfectly acceptable (indeed, a superior) replacement for tap water. Unlike soda, milk, juice, or beer, it purports to replicate or replace a vital service that has been provided by government for over a century—delivering a life-sustaining substance essential for maintaining public health—which public water utilities do for a minuscule fraction of the cost and environmental impact of bottled water.

What will happen if “competition” from bottled water is allowed to undermine the maintenance of water infrastructure for the great majority of the population in the global North who still receive high quality drinking water? The Canadian author and water activist Maude Barlow told me that me this is one of her big fears: “The longer we leave undertaking the necessary upgrades, the more the public will lose faithIt becomes a vicious cycle: “I don’t trust the water; I will pay for an alternative source; but now I don’t want to pay again to make sure the public system is safe because I don’t use it.” in public water. As they turn to private water, many will not support their tax dollars going to upgrade a system they don’t use except for toilets and showers. . . . So it becomes a vicious cycle: “I don’t trust the water; I will pay for an alternative source; but now I don’t want to pay again to make sure the public system is safe because I don’t use it.”

In places where tap water is almost universally available and safe to drink, by increasing public distrust of tap water and diminishing the pressure on government to reinvest in drinking water infrastructure, the bottled water industry is creating its own market. Put another way, if enough of the public is persuaded to never drink from the tap—to shun it as a source of drinking water altogether, as one in five people in the U.S. already do—then an increasing share of our tap water might indeed become less reliable or safe to drink. This is a savvy marketing achievement, but it has troubling implications for society and democracy.

That is why this product is not merely another consumer good, and why its growth must be seen as a threat both to the future of high-quality public tap water and to the human right to safe water.

Do you think the bottled water industry has reached the peak of its ability to market its product as a lifestyle choice? In other words, is there enough of a public pushback against the hype to give us hope for changes in policy and practice?

Bottled water’s growth has often appeared to be unstoppable. However, its major negative social and environmental impacts have generated a major backlash in recent years—especially among young people—that is making the bottled water industry increasingly nervous and threatening to disrupt its momentum. I do think the bottled water industry has probably reached and even passed its peak among communities in wealthy nations who enjoy the privilege of consistent access to reliably safe tap water. 

A 2019 survey found that 53 percent of U.S. consumers say they carry a refillable water bottle with them when they leave home, and 60 percent say they own refillable bottles.

The backlash is strongly linked to the reaction against single-use plastics, which really took off in 2018 and 2019, due to a combination of media coverage of the marine plastic pollution crisis, the impact of China’s National Sword policy that ended imports of plastic waste, and soaring awareness of the climate crisis. These changes have caused a major shift in attitudes and consumer behavior. A 2019 survey found that 53 percent of U.S. consumers say they carry a refillable water bottle with them when they leave home, and 60 percent say they own refillable bottles. 

This has also generated an avalanche of policy change, with many local governments banning municipal bottled water purchases and reinvesting tap water by installing shiny new water fountains and refilling stations. Global efforts, such as the Blue Communities campaign, are linking these cities together. 

 The industry recognizes these trends and has become concerned. Recent industry market reports speak in insistent terms about young people’s rejection of plastics and bottled water. One report states, “though the number of Americans who have reduced their single-use bottled water purchases is small (7% of bottled water buyers), the bottled water attrition rate will grow as concerns around plastic bottles also grows. There is a strong possibility that young consumers have an extremely negative view of bottled water and some may never become bottled water purchasers.”

Let’s look around the world at where bottled water sales have stagnated or shrunk. This trend began in western Europe, where in Germany, France, and Belgium, per-capita bottled water consumption fell slightly between 2012 and 2020. In the United Kingdom, bottled water sales in 2020 were still below their 2018 levels. In Canada, per-person consumption of bottled water is projected to remain flat in future years at just under 73 liters (19.3 gallons) annually—less than half the amount consumed in the United States. The share of Canadians who report that they consumed bottled water during the past day soared from 29 percent of households in 2012 to a peak of 53 percent in 2018, but then fell for two straight years to only 44 percent in 2020.

In the U.S., bottled water consumption was slowing even before the Covid pandemic. It rose an average of 6.8 percent annually from 2014 to 2017, but only an average of 3.5 percent per year from 2017 to 2022. Then, in 2022, the U.S. bottled water market slowed even more. According to one report, U.S. per-person bottled water consumption actually shrank by 1 percent in 2022—the first decline since the Great Recession, and only the third year in history that sales have fallen. The movements to “reclaim the tap” and promote refilling, and the backlash against single-use plastics, are clearly a major cause of this sea change.

What is the most important act that individuals can take to assert and protect water as a public trust and human right?

We need to recognize how the growth of bottled water is at least partly a symptom of the social justice crisis of unequal access to safe and affordable drinking water, both domestically and on a global level. Fighting for major reinvestment in clean, affordable public tap water for everyone is the best way to address the root causes of bottled water’s global spread and realize the human right to water for all.

In the U.S., there has been a dramatic disinvestment by the federal government in funding public water infrastructure over the last half century—a decline of 77 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 1977 and 2017. This has pushed the burden onto cities and caused a growing problem of deferred maintenance by public water utilities, especially in fiscally stressed municipalities, resulting in threats to water quality that are concentrated in low-income and rural communities, particularly those with higher populations of Black and Latino/a residents.

Widespread dependence on bottled water —not just during immediate emergencies but for the medium or long term — is a marker of water injustice.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, studies consistently show that higher-income and white households in the U.S. consume more tap water (which they trust more) and less bottled water, while lower-income households and people of color trust their tap water less and consume more bottled water. However, these communities on average can least afford the dramatically higher cost of relying on this product for all their drinking (and sometimes cooking) needs. Bottled water is wrapped up in a complex dynamic of social inequality and uneven threats to tap water quality that are caused by dwindling federal investment and deteriorating public water infrastructure.

Widespread dependence on bottled water, whether in disasters of unsafe tap water such as in Flint, Benton Harbor, or Jackson, Mississippi, or in many parts of the global South—not just during immediate emergencies but for the medium or long term—is a marker of water injustice.

In U.S., there is a dire need for federal reinvestment in water infrastructure to take the fiscal burden off of cash-strapped local governments, deal with threats from PFAS and other emerging contaminants, make water systems more resilient to severe weather and climate change, and deal with soaring water bills that are causing an epidemic of water shutoffs. The WATER Act, supported by hundreds of water and social justice organizations, would allocate $35 billion per year to a permanent federal trust fund to restore and improve public water systems across the country, with priority given to the most vulnerable communities, and tackle the affordability crisis.

People concerned with protecting the human right to water can start locally, by pushing city and state governments to ban water shutoffs, institute income-based water rates, restore widespread access to tap water in public spaces, curtail bottled water, and keep water systems in public hands. They can take action at the federal level, by pushing their legislators to support the WATER Act and other efforts to rebuild public water systems so that they are safe, trustworthy, and affordable for everyone.


How Are We Using Great Lakes Water and Groundwater?

Above: Watershed art by Glenn Wolff.

By Bob Otwell, FLOW Board member

A Great Lakes water use report recently released by the Great Lakes Commission provides an important snapshot of the kinds and volumes of water withdrawals in the region.

Annual Report of the Great Lakes Regional Water Use Database – 2021 data-Jan 2023

The report found that an average 37.5 billion gallons of water per day were withdrawn from the Great Lakes Basin in 2021. Most of this water (71%) was utilized for cooling of power plants. The next highest use was 14% for public water supply. The primary source for both of these two categories is Great Lakes surface water.

The report found that an average 37.5 billion gallons of water per day were withdrawn from the Great Lakes Basin in 2021. Most of this water (71%) was utilized for cooling of power plants.

The report included water use data from eight Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), and two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec).

Water use was presented from three sources; Great Lakes surface water, other surface water (rivers and lakes), and groundwater. Levels in the Great Lakes have ranged from an all-time low to all-time high over the past decade. Our societal usage of Great Lakes surface water has negligible effect on their levels. Levels in the Great Lakes are primarily influenced by precipitation and evaporation.

Water use was presented from three sources; Great Lakes surface water, other surface water (rivers and lakes), and groundwater.

Groundwater levels have been dropping in some parts of Michigan in recent decades due to overuse. Groundwater was only about 3% of total basin water use. Groundwater withdrawals occurred mostly in three categories: public water supply (41%), industrial (26%), and irrigation (23%). Of these three, irrigation had by far the highest consumptive use (88%) of total use, whereas public water supply and industrial consumptive use comprised just over 10% of total use. Consumptive use refers to the portion of the water withdrawn or withheld from the basin that is lost, or otherwise not returned, to the basin due to evaporation, incorporation into products, or other processes.

Groundwater levels have been dropping in some parts of Michigan in recent decades due to overuse.

Ontario has the largest land area in the basin, and the largest total withdrawal of the 10 jurisdictions. Michigan has the second largest land area but has the largest groundwater withdrawal volume of all states and provinces, 44% of the total. In Michigan, 39% of all groundwater withdrawal is for irrigation.

There are areas in Michigan, like Ottawa County, where groundwater demands exceed sustainable groundwater supply. In Southwest Michigan, the acreage irrigated for agricutlure has increased over the past decade. As we start to use more groundwater in Michigan, care should be taken to improve monitoring and reporting of groundwater levels, along with groundwater usage, on an annual basis.

There are areas in Michigan, like Ottawa County, where groundwater demands exceed sustainable groundwater supply.

The state legislature has recently approved funding for some of this work. The funding provides an educational program to increase agricultural water use efficiency. In addition, a database is being created to help with hydrogeologic data collection and modeling and increasing the availability of existing data in a common format. In 2022, the Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW unanimously approved and encouraged the legislature to embrace these recommendations.

About the Author: Bob Otwell, who has served on FLOW’s Board of Directors since 2013, is a hydrologist, civil engineer, and founder of Otwell Mawby engineering in Traverse City, Michigan. 

Public Trust Bill Package Boosts Groundwater Protection in Michigan

Editor’s note: This is a FLOW media release issued March 17, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at Liz@FLOWforWater.org or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood expressed strong support for legislation introduced in Lansing today that would shore up public trust protections for the Great Lakes and groundwater against water-bottling companies thirsting for profits and strengthen safeguards for waterways on state land.

“The Great Lakes must never be for sale,” Kirkwood said in a video-recording message for the press conference announcing the legislation. “And Michigan’s groundwater must never become privatized and siphoned away.”

Watch Liz Kirkwood’s video message below:

The three-bill package (House Bills 5953, 5954, and 5955) introduced by Michigan Reps. Yousef Rabhi, Laurie Pohutsky, Rachel Hood, and Padma Kuppa would close the legal loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that allows private interests and international regimes to take massive amounts of Great Lakes water as long as it is extracted in containers of 5.7 gallons or less. The legislation also would explicitly apply public trust protections to groundwater, which provides drinking water to 45% of Michiganders and helps recharge the Great Lakes, and would direct the Department of Natural Resources to be strong public trustees of the lands and waters it manages. Rep. Kuppa also plans to introduce a groundwater resolution on March 22, World Water Day.

“These prudent changes will ensure that Michigan has the ability to stop privatization of the Great Lakes and groundwater, and reject future water withdrawals that are not in the public’s interest,” said Kirkwood, an environmental attorney who directs FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “We must protect every arc of the water cycle.”

Michigan’s groundwater supplies drinking water to 45% of Michiganders. Groundwater that discharges to lakes and streams also is crucial to sustain coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and also accounts for approximately 20-40% of the volume of the Great Lakes.

“Without these protections explicitly in place we face the very real possibility that our most valuable natural resource, the water which defines our state, could be treated as a commodity for sale like oil,” Kirkwood said, “and virtually eliminate the state’s ability to protect this vital resource.”

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.

When Water Was Trash

Bottled water

Helene Kouzoujian Rimer read her compelling and arresting poem, “When Water Was Trash,” at the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s “Words for Water” poetry throw-down on July 31. The outdoor event was a collaboration between the Arts Center and FLOW. Poets and performers were invited to read works that sought to answer the question: “Who owns the water? People? Communities? Corporations? Nobody?” Click here to watch a livestream recording of the poetry throw-down.

FLOW’s “Art Meets Water” initiative seeks to develop a deep sense of stewardship for our Great Lakes by celebrating the creativity and passion sparked by these magnificent freshwater resources. “Art Meets Water” is an ongoing series of collaborations with committed artists, inspired by the ability of art to amplify our critical connection to water. The Great Lakes Belong to All of Us. “All of Us” speaks to the many kinds of beautiful diversity in our Great Lakes community.


When Water was Trash

Last month I learned that water was trash.

It didn’t want to be.

A bottle of unopened water.

Its life-giving elixir


In a plastic cocoon

Never to emerge, never to unleash its magic:

To revive a parched mouth.

To make the plants in Mary Lee’s garden grow.

To shake the poplar leaves in a rainstorm frenzy.

Instead they caught it. Captured it. Capped it. Strangled it.

Owned it for free and sold it for gold. Water became cash.

And, then someone accidently dropped it in the Platte River.

For me to pick up, on a river clean-up day

in a plastic black bag with garbage.

Why didn’t I open it and pour it in the river? Because it was trash.

Now, doomed to live its million-year journey in the trash mountain, in Glen’s Landfill with millions of unopened bottles of water, from soccer games, yoga workouts, picnics, meetings; mountains of them, waiting to come, at Costco, Walmart, Meijer, gas stations, vending machines, every grocery store.


When I am old, I will tell of the day when water was sold for gold, and when water was trash.

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.

Tapping into Local Awesomeness

The Local Movement

Did you know that the City of Traverse City has been addressing plastic pollution, climate change, and water privatization for almost a decade? I’m so proud of our small but mighty Midwest town here in the heart of the Great Lakes.

In 2009, our city adopted a resolution to ban plastic bottled water from all municipal functions! Why? Because the city had already recognized the wasteful nature of single-use plastic water bottles, the staggering expense associated with bottled water, the climate change impacts and carbon footprint associated with producing and shipping plastics made from fossil fuels, and the incredible high quality drinking water Traverse City provides its residents. City Planner, Russ Soyring, explained that this resolution is a reflection of the city’s culture now. And it’s a testimony to how resilient we are when we decide to be. 

In less than 10 years, bottled water has outstripped the sales of carbonated soda beverages, and bottled water has been become another normalized American addiction. Compared to municipal water, bottled water can cost up to 2000% more per volume than tap water. Around 64% of commercial bottled water is just tap water that’s been filtered or purified. 70% of plastic water bottles are not recycled — and still people drink from them.

The Larger Conversation

This conversation about bottled water is a critical one to us at FLOW because it opens the door to a larger policy conversation about the urgency of retaining and protecting water as a public resource. That’s why we started the Get Off the Bottle campaign. That’s why we started mapping all the drinking fountains and refillable bottled water stations on an app called WeTap. If we’re going to change our habits, we know we need alternatives like knowing where we can fill up our reusable water bottle. 

In buying bottled water, consumers are inadvertently legitimizing the capture of water that belongs to all of us by private, for-profit companies who reap unearned, enormous riches. Water belongs to the public and cannot be privately owned. Turning water into a product for private profit is inconsistent with the 1500-year-old public trust doctrine of law and risks putting all water up for grabs. 

The majority of municipal water systems in this country – some 85% — are publicly owned and remain accountable to residents under constitutional and public governance. But as our municipal infrastructure continues to age without adequate funding support, there will be increasing pressure to privatize our drinking and wastewater systems. The latest example comes to us from Puerto Rico. And clear patterns emerge from water privatization, well documented to include: rate increases, lack of public accountability and transparency, higher operation costs, worse customer service, loss of one in three water jobs. A Food & Water Watch survey of rates by 500 water systems showed that privatized systems typically charge 59 percent more than publicly owned systems.

We know there is no one size that fits all; however, when it comes to water, we have to affirmatively commit to protecting it as a shared public resource. To this end, we believe that local governments across the Great Lakes Basin must insist on key principles that Jim Olson articulated in his blog several months ago:

  1. Declare all water public; just because our natural public water commons enter an intake pipe does not mean this water loses its public common and sovereign status. Government at all times must manage and provide water as sovereign for the benefit of people.
  2. Impose public oversight with a duty to protect the public service, public interest, public health, and public trust in water and the infrastructure the water passes through;
  3. Establish rights and Impose duties of accountability, notice, participation, equal access to safe, adequate, clean, affordable public water;
  4. Guarantee principles of due process, equal protection of law, and right to basic water service;
  5. Guarantee affordability and equity in access and use of water by all residents and customers;
  6. Implement fair and innovative pricing, subject to public oversight, a public utility or water board, with a statement of rights, duties, enforcement, and government process to assure safe, clean, affordable public water.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director


Fundamentally, while national and state environmental policies are critically important, we know that local communities are where policies take shape in our daily lives. It’s right here in our own communities where we can make a difference. Thanks TC for taking back the tap!

Humoring Ourselves to Get Off the Bottle

Today at FLOW, we are launching our latest campaign. It’s called Get Off the Bottle, and it combines facts, law, and policy with good old fashioned humor about the absurd implications of bottled water, whose sales surpassed the sales of soda for the first time in 2016.  

Just think about that for a moment. Did you ever think there would be a moment in your lifetime when bottled water sales would outstrip soda sales? For some of us, the question is even more basic: did you ever think companies like Nestle, Coke, Pepsi, Evian would make billions of dollars annually by selling you tap water (which you already paid for via taxes and fees) in plastic water bottles? I don’t know about you, but I guess I spent a lot of my childhood dehydrated!

The “Get Off the Bottle” campaign is designed to get citizens thinking and to empower them to make smart, protective decisions for our Great Lakes. We raise important questions about the cost, misleading labels, flavor, safety, energy waste, harm to streams and wetlands, lack of disclosure, plastic waste and other related issues. And what better way to explore these subtle yet complex issues than with humor?

Bottled water is part of a larger conversation and awareness about interconnected issues of failing water infrastructure, water affordability, equity, and privatization. As we launch this campaign, we will get bottled water in people’s thoughts and out of their hands.

Considering Knowledge of the Great Lakes and Plastic Bottles

Raised on Schoolhouse Rock!, I learned from a very young age that “knowledge is power.” While at first just a witticism I repeated in the show’s quirky inflection, the saying soon became real. This was one of the first bits of power I acquired, and I ran with it.

I learned to read at a young age, and I soaked up anecdotes and information as best I could. Though nowadays I enjoy spending my naptimes actually napping, I spent them as a youth reading rather than snoozing, and I quickly gained the wisdom of the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I memorized my favorite poems, by the great Shel Silverstein.

When I did not become the most powerful of all from this process, I realized that there are other forms of power as well. Unfortunately, not all of these other forms of power are as gentle or as honest as knowledge. Nonetheless, I always found the power of knowledge to be a worthy adversary, the one that wins out in the end, and I have stuck with it.

As an individual, the greatest way to impact the world I have found is through spreading that knowledge. It is the power that expands and grows as it is shared.

In my everyday life, I learn what I can. What is happening to the waters in our Great Lakes? Who is responsible for the decisions that impact the Lakes? Even simply: where does my drinking water come from? I do my best to distribute this power to friends, family, and even strangers. Though I do run into opposition, this is often excellent for the sake of knowledge. A debate often only leads to more knowledge gained on both ends.

If I see a friend of mine planning to purchase a plastic bottle full of water to accompany his sandwich for lunch, I will interrupt to offer my knowledge as well as several alternative solutions. Perhaps he could sip from the drinking fountain in plain sight. Or he could go grab the reusable water bottle in his nearby car. Or he could ask for tap water in a glass instead of bottled water.

These alternatives not only support the wallet, they support the health of the Great Lakes, and the right for safe, clean, and accessible water for everyone. Water is public. Water is a human right, and we should not be paying to allow a private company to profit from our water.

Nayt Boyt

We must share this knowledge, that the Great Lakes and their waters must be protected for our uses. That the ancient but relevant Public Trust Doctrine reinforces the fact that our leaders must protect those waters for our uses. We must first acknowledge any threats to these waters, and then eliminate them, so that this treasure will be here for our use and enjoyment, for our livelihood.

I expand my power of knowledge to you today, and by extension, to the people you interact with. The next time you plan to grab a bottle of water, or see another who does, consider the alternatives. Make sure the actions in your life support a thriving future for the Great Lakes, and for all of us.