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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
In one sense, the decision was narrow. The Court simply interpreted and applied zoning law and the language of the township’s zoning ordinance, and concluded that the industrial-sized pump facility was not authorized as a listed use or “essential public service” in a long-established agricultural district.
In another sense, the decision exposes the Achilles heel of the private bottled water industry’s water withdrawals, diversions, and sales throughout Michigan and the country.
No matter what arguments Nestlé threw at the appeals court—and there were many—the court rejected them. Nestlé tried to convince the court to allow the booster pump to expand its water diversion to Evart and then down U.S. 131 by truck to its plant in Stanwood by claiming, alternatively, that it was engaged in an essential public service, a public service, a public necessity, or a public water supply.
But Michigan’s second highest court found that, no matter how you pump it, the removal of 576,000 gallons per day, seven days a week, of public water for private bottled water sales was not public, not essential, not necessary, not a public service, and not a public water supply. In other words, bottled water diversion and export operations can no longer be paraded as public. The bottled water industry has only one purpose—maximum profit from the sale of packaged public water.
At its core, the conversion of Michigan’s sovereign water into a product and revenue does not square with our laws and customs that view water as “a commons” for reasonable use to serve the needs of landowners, communities, and the public. Water has been considered public for more than 1,500 years. Until the last 30 years, our common law never contemplated the sale of massive quantities of water to consumers living outside a river’s or lake’s watershed, or outside the Great Lakes Basin.
It is a frequent misconception that landowners own the groundwater beneath their feet or the stream passing by the shore. Landowners or occupants of land do not own the water passing under or through their land; they have only a right of reasonable use, and may use it in connection with their land in some beneficial way, so long as the use does not interfere or diminish the water or their neighbor’s reasonable use in connection with the overlying land.
Lower Court Decision
Along with gaining state approval to pump 400 gallons per minute, Nestlé leased farmland and filed an application for a zoning permit with Osceola Township to locate an industrial-size booster pump in the A-1 Agricultural District to expand capacity of a pipeline that runs to a truck transfer-station located two miles south of Evart. The industrial use did not appear eligible as a use in the farming district. The Planning Commission noted, however, that it might qualify as an “essential service” if Nestlé could show that the private facility constituted a “public convenience and necessity,” but ultimately denied the request because it did not meet that standard.
Nestlé appealed to the county circuit court, ruling that the proposed pump facility constituted an “essential public service,” which was exempt from the ordinance. The court reasoned that, from Nestlé’s viewpoint, the facility was an essential service, and that, because it satisfied a general public demand for consuming bottled water, it was public.
Nestlé also submitted several alternative claims and arguments that its booster pump station qualified for approval under the zoning ordinance. In every instance the Court completely rejected Nestlé’s arguments.
First, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an “essential public service.” The Court acknowledged that “water is essential” to life—sustenance, health, farming, industry, electricity, recreation, and other human needs—but rejected the argument that selling bottled water to consumers at a profit somehow constitutes a “public service.” The Court found that “public service” means supplying water as a service to the general public or community through public waterworks, in the same way as any public utility, such as for the delivery of gas or electricity; the appeals court concluded that bottled water sales are a convenience, and sometimes are a help consumers in an emergency—but not a service that’s essential to the public.
Second, as a backup claim, Nestlé argued that its pump facility qualified as an “essential public service” because the large-volume water well permit constituted a “public water supply” under Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”). However, the appeals court determined that the private sale of bottled water was not in the nature of a public utility subject to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Moreover, in a latter section of its decision, the appeals court noted that under the SDWA a “community supply” and “non-community supply” refer to a public water supply that provides year-round service to living units of residents, places of employment, schools, or daycare centers. The Court concluded that bottled water sales to consumers do not meet the definition of a public water supply.
Third, the company argued that the pump station qualified as an agricultural use. But the appeals court pointed to the definition in the zoning ordinance, finding that farming uses included growing, irrigation, food storage, or distribution facilities for agricultural products, and concluded that the industrial pump facility did not qualify as an agricultural use. Water is not “something produced,” the appeals court stated. Water used for farming is not, in itself, a farm product.
Fourth, Nestlé argued that its pump station qualified as an “extraction” of natural resources like sand and gravel under a special use permit provision in the ordinance. But once more the appeals court rejected the company’s argument because extraction or mining of a natural resource is not the same as the removal of water that continually moves through subsurface soils to replenish a stream, lake, or wetland, or provide a source of water for overlying landowners. In other words, water is not owned and extracted, water is a common resource reasonably used by others as it moves through the watershed. The sale of water permanently removed or severed from the water cycle by its nature does not replenish a shared common resource, it irretrievably depletes the resource: “… [E]xtracting water and sending it to other places where it cannot return to the water table… faster than the aquifer can replenish is an ‘irretrievable’ depletion,” the appeals court ruled. The court’s reasoning is entirely in accord with the common law rule in Michigan that water cannot be diverted off-tract or out of a watershed for sale in distant places if it diminishes other uses of water in connection with land in the watershed, the level of a marsh, lake, or stream. A large-volume pump diverting water from the land used by others for farming purposes is not compatible with farming or agricultural use.
Fifth, Nestlé argued that Michigan’s 2008 Water Withdrawal Act preempted local zoning ordinances that restricted the withdrawal of water: “[A] local unit of government shall not enact or enforce an ordinance that regulates a large quantity withdrawal,” stipulated the act. But the appeals court distinguished the regulation of groundwater withdrawal from the regulation of allowable land uses under a zoning ordinance, and concluded that the zoning ordinance “does not have the effect of regulating… the removal of water.”
Finally, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an inextricable part of its large-volume water well that had been permitted by the State as a “public water supply” under the SDWA. However, the appeals court, again, ruled that water withdrawn for sale as bottled water for private gain did not fit the definition of a “public water supply,” emphasizing that the 2008 amendments to the SDWA created an entirely new classification for permitting bottled water operations, completely apart from sections of the SDWA that governed permits for a public water supply.
Future of Free Public Water for Private Bottling, Sale, and Profit
As a result of the court of appeals decision, for Nestlé to locate an industrial pumping station in Osceola Township, it will have to convince the Township’s board to amend the zoning ordinance. But the ruling goes far beyond zoning law.
In its broadest sense, the Osceola Township case could mean a lot more. Over the past two decades, bottled water has represented a battleground in many locations, including Maine and Vermont, Maryland and Florida, Texas and California, and across the border in Hamilton, Ontario.
There are three fundamental issues in play: First, as seen by the court findings in the 2005 Nestlé case in Mecosta County, Michigan, groundwater withdrawals diverted for bottled water on a permanent basis cause substantial local impacts to fish, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife, and habitat in tributary creeks, lakes, and wetlands. Second, the removal of water for sale out of a watershed is not a use of water like farming or manufacturing in connection with land and returned to the watershed; it is a diversion and sale or export. Third, almost no one—regardless of their political persuasions—warms to the notion that someone can withdraw water, bottle it, and then claim it as its own to sell and profit without paying a penny for it. The public, in effect, subsidizes the company’s profit, without ever authorizing the company to sell the water.
Private large-volume groundwater operations like Nestlé’s in Michigan aren’t the only threat. Many water bottlers like Dasani and Aquafina hook up to a public water supply, package it, and convert it into a product to sell after paying a tiny fraction of a penny per gallon to the local municipality. In these cases, the corporations do not need a groundwater permit. They simply convert a public water service based on a nonprofit rate structure—spread across all those using the service—into profit. Like Nestlé, water bottlers who convert a public water supply into a package to sell at lucrative prices are subsidized by the other ratepayers and the public water supply service.
How can a bottled water company pay only an infinitesimal fraction of a penny for a gallon of water—based on a pro-rated cost of the municipal operation spread across all ratepayers—package, or bottle it, and convert it into a product or export t for sale for its own profit without authorization to sell or profit from the sale of a public water service?
The Court of Appeals decision in Osceola Township is a significant victory for local communities, water users, and citizens of Michigan who so often struggle to combat large, exploitive operations such as high-volume bottled water exports, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), fracking, and mining extraction. Just because a company thinks it can withdraw water and sell it because it holds a permit that says the withdrawal doesn’t violate impact standards, doesn’t mean the extraction is authorized or lawful under zoning laws, water rights law, or the sovereign state and public trust interest in water for the benefit of all citizens. Corporate water bottling is a private use, bent on convenience and profit. Even in humanitarian situations, like supplying bottled water in Flint, the water withdrawal still benefits the company.
The answer to the larger question, “Who owns the groundwater?” is that, “No one owns the water.” Not the landowners, not bottled water companies, not even the local public water works. Groundwater is public water held by the State for the benefit of its citizens’ health, safety, and wellbeing. Michigan water is for use here in our local watersheds and the Great Lakes Basin, not for sale in some distant land.
Ted Curran and his wife Marcia walked into my life and FLOW’s life during the fight by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) for the soul of Michigan’s public water and the Great Lakes in its lawsuit against bottled water-giant Nestlé.
I served as legal counsel in MCWC’s battle, and it was during a citizens’ meeting in the lower level of Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City that Ted and Marcia showed up to support us. When they introduced themselves after the meeting, and offered their assistance, I realized they were there because they cared not just about a single issue, but cared deeply about the common good.
Ted became a stalwart supporter of FLOW during our early years from 2009-2011 when we formed as a coalition to work to close the dangerous loopholes in the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban for bottled water and water as a product. Little did I know when I first met Ted that when he chose to work on something, he wouldn’t stop until he saw it succeed.
Thankfully, Ted, along with our other MCWC board members, meant just that. Then he continued as a founding member of FLOW’s Board of Directors. Our mission—“Keep it plain and simple,” Ted urged: Save and sustain the waters of the Great Lakes Basin from diversion, impairment, and private control by establishing a framework and body of principles for generational stewardship.
This framework and body of principles are rooted in what is known as the common law public trust doctrine— principles that impose a duty on government, as trustee, to protect the integrity of common public waters like the Great Lakes, for citizens, as beneficiaries, from one generation to the next. Ted understood the importance of these principles, but he also understood the majestic beauty and importance of 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
He rolled up his sleeves, attended most every meeting, and began to demand that we continually define and hone our mission and goals. Shortly after we formed FLOW, Ted invited me to his home on the Lake Michigan shore near Frankfort to talk over coffee. He stressed clarity in our work, and contacts with others, especially in raising funds. He urged me to reach out and follow up, and to not shy away from asking for donations, something I’ve never been very good at. He cared for FLOW, but he knew caring and missions also demanded professionalism for an organization to succeed and serve the common good.
Ted was a mentor, sharp observer, astute organizer, and quiet leader—he encouraged, asked questions to force you to think clearly, and guided strategy and direction. Ted drew on his wealth of diplomatic experience around the world—often in hot-spots like the Middle East–during his career as a one of the highest-ranking members in the United States Foreign Service, and on his deep passion for peaceful solutions in serving the common good throughout his life.
Ted’s idea of peace was not quietism when he was with us. As FLOW co-founding member Bob Otwell, former Executive Director of TART Trails, recalled, “Ted was a warm, gracious man, and at board meetings, his comments always helped move us forward with more wisdom.” Former FLOW Board Chair Mike Dettmer said, “Ted’s work, dedication, and involvement cannot be overstated. He was, and always will be a guiding light, someone who kept us moving in the right direction, and when we strayed, he gently, firmly called us on it.”
As FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said, “Ted was there in the early days, for meetings, events, outreach, and fundraising. He would always take me aside, reminding me about details, people to contact, and always to keep raising funds. His words and actions were, and remain, an encouragement and reminder that good things come about with faith and action.”
These qualities of clarity, grace, wisdom, and a keen sense of the right thing to do, and then to do it, are something that he and Marcia seemed to have shared throughout their entire life of more than 60 years together.
Ted, you lived for community and the common good of humanity. We miss you. Thank you for your solid, kind service and friendship to all of us here in Northern Michigan. We’ll always think of you when we look at the majestic Great Lakes that you cherished. You have been, and will continue to be, a beacon of light.
A memorial service is planned at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Beulah, Michigan, for 2 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. For more on Ted’s full life, read his beautiful obituary here.
I don’t mean to dampen the joy of spring in Michigan, but amidst headlines over Line 5 and unconscionable groundwater contamination from PFAS, we need to embolden our governor, our state officials, and every citizen who cares about water, justice, and the rule of law to join another battle.
We need to hoist the mast of Michiganders’ most precious resource (if you seek a water wonderland, look about you), and rally to prevent the private encroachment on our public water, health, and our communities. Private landowners have a right to reasonable use of water for the benefit of their land. But reasonable use does not mean robbing large volumes of water from the headwaters of our streams, lakes, and wetlands—water taken for free and sold elsewhere for private gain.
As I write this, Ross Hammersley, Rebecca Millican, and Bill Rastetter, lawyers for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB), are filing legal arguments before a Michigan administrative law judge who will rule on the legality of a permit that would allow a bottled water company—Nestlé—to sever another 210 million gallons from our watersheds without paying a penny for the privilege to sell our public water.
MCWC, the GTB, and their lawyers need your help. This is a call to action to prevent the loss of the state’s sovereign water that is supposed to be managed by government for the benefit of citizens. If the state does not honor its paramount responsibility this way, our water and watersheds will be subordinated to private interests. It is up to citizens to join together to make sure our leaders act in the public interest.
“When the tribal signatories to the 1836 Treaty of Washington ceded title to approximately 14 million acres so that the United States could grant statehood to Michigan in 1837, the Tribes (including the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) retained inland usufructuary rights to fish, hunt, and gather plants that are property rights protected by the United States Constitution,” explains William Rastetter, tribal attorney for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
“These property rights in the fauna and flora resources dependent upon the Muskegon River tributaries and related wetlands are likely to be impacted by Nestlé’s increased water withdrawal. Because the 1836 Treaty also imposes a duty upon the State of Michigan to preserve habitat upon which treaty-reserved resources are dependent, Governor Whitmer’s administration should be reexamining the 2017 permit issued to Nestlé instead of defending the diminishment of Michigan’s water resources.”
A year ago, in 2018, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) under the control of the then–Governor Snyder administration issued another permit to Nestlé, the bottled-water giant, to extract 400 gallons per minute (gpm) or 210 million gallons a year of groundwater that forms the headwaters of two cold, blue-ribbon trout streams in northern Michigan. MCWC, the nonprofit organization that won the 9-year court battle against Nestlé in 2009, and the Grand Traverse Band, whose tribal treaty fishing and hunting rights are protected by the constitution, filed petitions for contested cases to overturn the permit.
“Our members live along the affected creeks and have standing,” writes Peggy Case, president of the MCWC board of directors. “Our members statewide are also involved as we connect the dots between the privatization of the water of the commons by Nestlé in Mecosta and Osceola counties—for profit only—with the injustice of water shut-offs in Detroit and water poisoning in Flint, all related to attempts to privatize municipal water systems.”
“The hearing on the permit begins May 20 and we are in major fundraising mode to pay the attorneys for the work to prepare for this hearing. It is, of course, our hope that the new Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (DEGLE) will simply determine that the permit was not issued within the requirements of statute and they will withdraw it. It is our contention that none of the three permits for this well were properly issued by the DEQ in accordance to law.”
These cases will soon come to trial, and the results will affect all of us. Recently, the administrative law judge accelerated the trial dates by ordering the parties to file written expert testimony, exhibits, and file legal arguments over the legality of the permit. The hearing will conclude in June.
At stake in this case is nothing less than the future of who controls Michigan’s sovereign, public water. Why? Because much like the way the former Snyder administration manipulated a now-dubious Line 5 tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, the Snyder regime granted Nestlé the permit for 210 million gallons a year—by twisting and ignoring the water laws of Michigan that were specifically designed to address the known harms and risks to Michigan’s cold-water streams and wetlands from bottled water operations. If the permit is left to stand, the world will know that Michigan plays fast and loose with its water laws—and the rule of law—and it asks nothing for the taking and sale of its water. If this permit is not overturned, Michigan may as well post an advertisement in Fortune magazine: “Come and get Michigan’s pure water! It’s free.”
The Price of Water to Citizens and Profit to Private Water Marketers is a Failure of Justice
That’s right; an applicant pays an annual $200 administrative fee and one-time payment of $5,000 to defray DEQ’s expenses incurred when reviewing a bottled-water proposal. The state also charges only a nominal fee for a company in Detroit to tap into its public water supply for a few pennies, bottle it, and sell it at great markup. Not a penny is paid to the people of Michigan for the privilege to sever and sell the state’s sovereign water. The taste of a multinational water bottler’s excessive profiteering doesn’t sit well when people in Flint reel from the lack of access to water safe from the risk of lead poisoning, or tens of thousands of people in Detroit continue to suffer the indignity and harm to families and health from water shutoffs because they cannot afford the high price of water to meet their basic needs. The taste of water injustice in Michigan is bitter indeed.
This Isn’t the First 210 Million Gallon a Year Permit
Before the DEQ issued the permit to Nestlé in 2018, MCWC had already established in the earlier lawsuit against Nestlé in Big Rapids that removing 400 gallons a minute of groundwater near the headwaters of a Michigan stream, wetland, and lake complex causes substantial and unlawful harm. For every gallon Nestlé pumped and piped to the Stanwood bottling plant, the headwaters lost nearly a gallon. It doesn’t take long to understand that, if you remove nearly 400 gallons per minute (gpm) or 576,000 gallons a day from the headwaters of a creek that flows at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 gpm, the flows drop by 20 to 35 percent. When flows drop, water levels drop. When water levels drop, the stream narrows, habitat changes, and the entire ecosystem and riparian and public uses, such as fishing and boating, are impaired. As a rule of thumb, in summer months, these effects can start showing up when the flows in creeks are diminished by even 10 percent.
The lessons learned from the MCWC lawsuit and appellate court decisions are important for the basic questions that will be decided by an administrative law judge and, ultimately, new DEGLEdirector Liesl Clark.But there’s one difference: after the first MCWC trial in Big Rapids, Michigan amended the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) and the Great Lakes Preservation Act (GLPA), which added a water withdrawal law in 2008. Both of these laws contain specific provisions with more stringent standards for bottled water, largely because of what everyone learned in the earlier trial and appellate decisions:
Existing and actual real-time data of flows and levels before and during pumping, and the calculation of the effects from the reduction of flows and levels from pumping groundwater near headwater streams is critical. Without calculations based on existing data of what happens to a stream when pumping occurs at different rates, the effects and impacts cannot be reasonably or accurately predicted and determined;
Computer modeling with input from selected monitoring data of groundwater and stream flows and levels is not reliable without strong correlation to the calculations and effects based on actual existing data;
Pumping groundwater at rates over 125 gpm from headwater areas during the drier summer months significantly reduces stream flows and the levels of streams, wetlands, and lakes, and results in substantial or unreasonable harm;
Pumping at 200 gpm to 400 gpm most anytime during the year will result in similar effects, impairment, and harm.
The Snyder Administration Skipped the Special Bottled Water Permit Required by the SWDA and GLPA
Because of lessons learned through scientific and judicial scrutiny, the SWDA added Section 17 to address pumping for bottled water. A few key provisions require:
If a water withdrawal totals more than 200,000 gallons a day (gpd), the applicant must comply with all of the standards for bottled water in Section 17 and Section 32723 of the GLPA;
The use of existing hydrologic, hydrogeological, and environmental data or conditions to make a “reasonable determination” of harm or violations of all applicable standards in the law;
Compliance with all of the standards in Section 32723, including the requirement of existing data and conditions, determining individual and cumulative impacts, and assuring no violation of riparian and public trust law and rights in a lake or stream; and
No adverse resource impacts, individual and cumulative impacts from previous or nearby withdrawals; and
Compliance with other laws, such as “no impairment” under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act or the “non-diminishment” standard under applicable treaties.
So, why are the MCWC and GTB contested cases before the administrative tribunal?Because we are a country and democracy founded upon the rule of law, and the former administration and Nestlé manipulated and loosely interpreted these laws in favor of Nestlé’s permit for 400 gpm or 576,000 gallons a day.
Here’s what happened:
Nestlé had obtained a permit to install a water well for 150 gpm or 216,000 gpd under a different law in 2001, but never placed it in production. After the effective date of the 2008 amendments, in 2009, the company applied for approval of the 2001 well for bottled water under the SWDA. But rather than require the company to submit a full application under Section 17 of the SWDA and Section 32723 of the GLPA, DEQ simply approved the water source. Nestlé argued that the well was pre–existing, but it was not, because it had never been put in production.
Then in 2015, Nestlé was allowed to register another 100 gpm, bringing the total to 250 gpm or 360,000 gpd, but under a different section of the law. Once again, DEQ did not require a full application and determination for bottled water production wells totaling more than 200,000 gpd under Sections 17 and 32723.
In 2016, Nestlé applied for another 150 gpm, totaling 400 gpm, or 400,000 gpd. And, again, the DEQ allowed the company to register and obtain a permit under a different provision, but did not require an application for bottled water under Sections 17 and 32723.
Three times Nestlé and DEQ missed or avoided the more stringent bottled water requirements under Section 17 of the SWDA and Section 32723 of the GLPA. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Wrong. In late fall 2016, Garret Ellison, investigative journalist for the MLive Media Group, discovered a DEQ notice that Nestlé would receive a permit for bottled water under the SWDA. The application and supporting information had never been posted. When it was discovered that Nestlé had never filed any application or obtained any permit under Sections 17 and 32723! Public outcry forced the DEQ to advise Nestlé that it had to submit an application under these sections for bottled water production. Nestlé finally, for the first time since the 2008 amendments to the SWDA and GLPA, submitted an application under Sections 17 and 32723 for its bottled water well for 150 to 400 gpm.However, despite thousands of public comments, the public hearing, and scientific and legal reports showing the DEQ and Nestlé had not complied with these laws, the DEQ manipulated and parsed the application into small pieces to avoid the standards and approve the permit.
MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band are heroes for contesting the Nestlé permit. They are calling the Snyder regime’s DEQ on the carpet for turning its back on Michigan’s water laws at a time when Michigan and the Great Lakes are being eyed with envy for its lakes, streams, and groundwater. State officials didn’t follow the law; in fact, they deliberately shaved and relaxed the legal standards in favor of Nestlé so that officials could approve the permit they were going to issue in the first place.
We Have a New Governor, New Director at DEQ (now DEGLE), and New Attorney General
Thank you, MCWC and Grand Traverse Band for representing all of the citizens of Michigan and taking government to task for violating our water and Great Lakes laws and the public trust. You deserve our wholehearted support. We have new leaders. Let all of us demand and make sure our new leaders and new DEGLE nullify the Nestlé permit and require full review under the rule of law, not the political marketplace. For more information and to get involved, visit the MCWC’s website www.saveMIwater.org.
Also consider contacting your elected leaders and ask them to take a stand against Nestlé: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, 517-373-3400; attorney general Dana Nessel, 517-335-7622.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Jim Olson, President and Legal Advisor at FLOW, is a national expert on water and environmental law. Olson represented Michigan Citizens for Conservation court victory that protects Michigan streams, lakes, wetlands, fish, and riparian and public uses from removal of tributary groundwater for bottled water operations.
Here’s how the former Michigan DEQ manipulated and parsed the deal.
It considered the 2009 and 2015 approvals preexisting, even though they were not applied for or permitted under Sections 17 and 32723. That meant the DEQ didn’t review the 150 gpm and 100 gpm (total of 250 gpm) or determine it was in compliance with the adverse impacts, impairment, and other standards of the bottled water Sections 17 and 32723.
It considered and determined to issue the 2018 permit (totaling 400 gpm at that point) as an application for 150 gpm, and confined its impact analysis to the 150 gpm. It also did not consider the cumulative impacts of the previous 250 gpm along with the request for the final 150 gpm (400 gpm or 576,000 gpm total).
Then it issued the 2018 permit for 400 gpm in two parts. First, it allowed the 250 gpm based on previous approvals, even though they were not lawfully permitted under Sections 17 and 32723; second, it approved the additional 150 gpm or 400 gpm total with a requirement that Nestlé would submit monitoring and other information to comply with the existing hydrogeological and environmental conditions after the fact—even though the determination is required to be based on existing data and conditions.
Finally, despite the clear finding in the MCWC v. Nestlé earlier lawsuit that computer models alone were not reliable, DEQ allowed Nestlé to submit logs of flows, levels, and other measurements it used to fix the boundaries and input in the computer model, but did not require real–time calculations of flows and levels based on complete existing data and conditions to determine the effects and impacts required by Sections 17 and 32723.
Photos by Devon Hains for the White Pine Press (NMC student-run newspaper), March 2016
Five years after the crisis began, some Flint residents don’t trust the water coming from their taps, even though the state has declared it safe. They continue to use bottled water for drinking, bathing, and baptizing their children. Their trust in government long ago washed down the drain.
Where bread lines formed during the Great Depression, bottled water lines formed during the height of Flint’s water crisis in 2015-2016.
“We are five years out, and we’re still not fixed. We still have ongoing issues,” Rev. Monica M. Villareal, a pastor at Salem Lutheran Church on Flint’s north side, told MLive’s Ron Fonger, who was among the first journalists out of the gate to cover the water crisis. “For our residents, we really don’t see the change. I think that in the broader community, there is frustration of not seeing more activity” to improve the water system.
Villareal and other leaders held a press conference in front of the Flint Water Plant this morning, after which residents boarded a bus to the State Capitol in Lansing.
A year ago the state stopped distributing bottled water to residents. In came Nestlé, the international giant that pays $200 per year to the state to suck 210 million gallons of water from mid-Michigan aquifers. Nestlé has scored a cheap PR public relations victory by distributing free bottled water to Flint residents, some of whom still pay more than $100 per month for water they don’t believe is safe to drink.
“The injustice of this situation could not be starker,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “At the same time the people of Flint are forced to drink bottled water, the state has authorized a water grab for $200 a year.”
Though national media look for heroes in the Flint water crisis―people like “Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny, who was heralded on the TV show Good MorningAmerica―the Flint water story remains an ongoing tragedy for most residents – impacting their health, homes, and hearts.
It’s a tragedy that has shone a spotlight on Michigan water issues―from drinking water in Flint and Detroit, to Nestlé’s bottled water heist, to the Line 5 oil pipeline under in the Straits of Mackinac.
Here’s a timeline of how the Flint water crisis unfolded:
On April 25, 2014, Flint switched its public water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The move was meant to be temporary. A pipeline was being built to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) which would eventually bring water from Lake Huron. The financially driven move had its roots in an effort by a state-imposed Emergency Manager to save money for the financially troubled city. Switching to the KWA was projected to save the region $200 million over 25 years.
Though the Flint River had a reputation of being less than clean, officials sought to reassure the public.
“It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard,”said Mayor Dayne Walling. “This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, and we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”
In the ensuing five years, that decision has generated headlines worldwide as having poisoned an American city―one that’s majority black and where 40 percent of people live in poverty. Thirteen Flint residents have died of Legionnaire’s disease allegedly linked to the untreated water that corroded pipes and leached lead into the drinking water in people’s homes. Thousands of children were exposed to toxic lead levels: the effects on their brain development won’t be fully known for years.
Flint residents complained almost immediately of putrid yellow water in their drinking and bathing water that tasted toxic, burned their skin, and caused headaches. Detections of E. coli and coliform bacteria prompted the city to issue a boil water advisory and to increase chlorine levels. Six months after the water switch, the local General Motors auto plant announced it would stop using Flint River water, fearing corrosion in its machines.
But hamstrung by their fealty to an Emergency Manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the city’s response to the crisis was tragically late. The state’s response was tardier later still. A year after the watch switch, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “the city did not have corrosion control treatment in place at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.” On July 13, 2015―15 months after the crisis began―MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel told Michigan Radio “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
It wasn’t until September 2015 that drinking water expert Dr. Marc Edwards and his Virginia Tech students drove a van to Flint on behalf of concerned residents and detected “some of the worst (lead levels) that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field.” MDEQ’s Wurfel dismissed Edwards’ findings. Later that month Hurley Medical Center’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha went with public with news that the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels in their blood surged after the water switch. Her research was also dismissed by the MDEQ.
Flint finally issued a lead advisory on Sept. 25, 2015. Snyder’s chief of staff responded that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football …” On Oct. 16, Flint switched back to the Detroit water supplier, but the damage to residents’ pipes, and to the drinking water supply was already done.
On Dec. 14, 2015 (nearly 20 months after the crisis began), newly elected Flint mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency. MDEQ officials resigned by the end of the month, and in January 2016, Snyder finally issued a state of emergency for Genesee County. Snyder testified before U.S. Congress in February but sought to deflect criticism toward local and federal agencies and not just his own state officials.
Five years after the Flint water crisis began, some residents don’t trust tap water anywhere, even when they travel outside of their city. Ebonie Gipson told MLive’s Fonger about ignoring a glass of water that was presented to her recently during a meal out of state. She left it untouched.
“For me, it really clicked that I just didn’t trust drinking water any more, no matter where I was,” said Gipson. “You don’t even realize it has impacted you for so long. To this day, I still have to coach myself and say it’s OK.”
Now that the primary election is behind us, Michiganders will pay increasing attention to this fall’s all-important electoral choices. FLOW is contacting the nominees for Governor, Attorney General, and northwest Michigan House and Senate seats this week to inform them of the water and public trust issues we think they should tackle. We are looking for them to provide voters their views on these issues before the November election.
Here are the key challenges we believe the Great Lakes State faces in protecting its public trust assets:
Shut down Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac. These antiquated 65-year-old pipelines convey almost 23 million gallons per day of petroleum products along the public bottomlands of the Straits. They pose an unacceptable risk of a spill that could cause ecological devastation and deliver a more than $6 billion blow to Michigan’s economy. The Legislature should amend Public Act 10 (1953) to require any utility easement authorized under this Act to reapply under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust laws governing occupancy of our public waters and bottomlands.
End Nestlé’s profiteering off public water and secure public water benefits. At a cost of $200 per year in state fees, Nestle is making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit annually by pumping, bottling and selling groundwater that would otherwise feed wetlands and streams. In effect, Nestle is selling back to the public its own water at a markup of more than 2000%. The Legislature should subject all private capture and sale of municipal water and groundwater to state regulation, impose royalties to benefit public water needs, and prohibit withdrawals that have unacceptable impacts on sensitive water resources.
Prevent and remediate Michigan’s groundwater contamination. About 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from groundwater supplies. Unfortunately, there are 6000 legacy groundwater contamination sites for which there is no state cleanup funding, an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems, thousands of private water wells contaminated with dangerous nitrate, thousands of sites that pose a risk of indoor toxic vapor intrusion, and a staggering number of potential sites (estimated at 11,000) where groundwater is contaminated with PFAS compounds. The Legislature should enact laws to address ongoing threats to groundwater quality and create a fund of at least $500 million to clean up legacy contamination sites.
Assure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all Michigan citizens. It is simply wrong that in a water-abundant state, thousands of households are priced out of access to basic water services in communities like Flint and Detroit. The Legislature should provide seed money and mandate public utility water pricing that assures all citizens can afford basic domestic water services.