by Andrew Guy, Michigan Land Use Institute
The term ‘Perrier’ is, like Nike’s swoosh emblem or McDonald’s golden arches, the quintessential mark of its trade. The global community associates athletic shoes with Nike, the world’s largest footwear company. We relate fast food with McDonalds, the planet’s premier burger stand. And, if revenues are any measure, we connect the Perrier Group of America, a division of the world’s largest food company, with the most essential beverage on Earth – water. This connection may intensify at the expense of the Great Lakes water supply.
Perrier, the bull of the bottled water industry, proposes to establish a novel operation in Michigan. Their facilities, proposed currently in Mecosta County in northern Michigan, would draw 500 gallons per minute – perhaps more – of groundwater that naturally flows through the heart of the Muskegon River watershed. The company would consume more groundwater than any other such bottling facility in the state.
Some embrace the proposal as an opportunity to diversify the local economy with a clean, stable industry.
Perrier plans to spend $60 million on facility development and employ 45 workers at an hourly wage topping out at $18. A local group of residents calling themselves Citizens for Jobs, Opportunity, and the Environment emerged in support of the project along with economic development authorities. Moreover, the state Economic Development Corporation cautiously helped Perrier establish contacts in the region.
The state agency wasn’t solely concerned about Perrier’s standing in the community; officials also recognized that legitimate economic, social, environmental, and political issues are being dropped on the Great Lakes water supply like giant explosive projectiles. Rampant population growth promises more thirsty people. BOOM! Climate change threatens to redistribute water around the globe. BOOM! Dwindling political representation means less power to lobby for Great Lakes protections. BANG! Insufficient science frustrates groundwater management. BOOM! Water scarcity problems already have occurred in Michigan. KABOOM!
With so much heavy artillery bombarding the Great Lakes bunker, Perrier’s proposal to mine, for free, 720,000 gallons of water per day is like lobbing in one more live grenade. Right now, that grenade threatens to blow any conservation goals Michigan may have right out of the water.
The state’s lawmakers and natural resource managers continue to treat Great Lakes water as if we are living in an age of limitless supply. Michigan appears content to permit an infinite number of groundwater withdrawals – nearly 10,500 wells to date – regardless of pumping rates and absent any sound scientific understanding of the resource. Indeed, the mere fact that Perrier has already sunk “test” wells in the ground says a great deal about what state leaders are willing to ignore. Ten absolutely crucial factors must, however, be carefully considered.
First and foremost, groundwater is a linchpin of Michigan society. The state withdraws more than 700 million gallons of water per day for domestic use, to grow food, and to make products such as cars and medicine. This reliance is unique. Forty-five percent of Michigan’s population depends on subsurface water supplies and the state has more private wells than any other in the United States. Further, more new wells were drilled in 1998 in Michigan than in any year previously recorded, proving that demand is rising.
Second, the state identified this sharp rise in local demand as a problem nine years ago when a special task force was convened to assess the risks confronting Michigan’s quality of life. Coordinated by the state Department of Natural Resources, the task force generated a report titled Michigan’s Environment and Relative Risk in which the mining of groundwater for consumptive use was recognized as one of the most troublesome and poorly understood challenges to managing the state’s water.
Third, the report was right on target. Groundwater overdraft—the difference between consumption and replenishment—already has led to conflicts in parts of Saginaw and Kent Counties. Many residents have been forced to redrill private wells at their own expense and, consequently, economic development remains stymied by moratoriums on new irrigation wells in several Saginaw County townships.
Fourth, in a region surrounded by six quadrillion gallons of freshwater, these water shortages confirm that groundwater science in the Great Lakes region suffers from a serious lack of information, as was noted in a recent report by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a research and policy organization created in 1909 by the U.S. and Canada to resolve Great Lakes water issues. Scientists are not certain how much groundwater exists, or how the resource flows in and out of the interconnected system of aquifers – underground water formations pressurized by the weight of the layers of sand, gravel, and stone that lie above and below.
Fifth, groundwater and surface water are inextricably connected. And scientists predict that surface water levels will fall. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2000 conducted climate change research on the Great Lakes Basin and found that freshwater flow in the region could decrease by 20 percent with a warming of 4 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in as much as an 8-foot drop in water levels on the big lakes by 2100.
Sixth, political power is ebbing in the Great Lakes, falling away from Midwest states and towards the gradually drier, and increasingly thirsty southwest. Every Great Lakes state, with the exception of Minnesota, lost congressional representation with the 2000 census. At the same time, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, and Texas all gained representation.
Seventh, this political realignment already threatens to erode Great Lakes conservation efforts. Speaking at a Republican fundraising luncheon in Traverse City, Michigan on March 21, 2000, House Majority Leader Dick Armey “joked” about solving a three-year drought in his state of Texas with Great Lakes water.
Eighth, domestic demand is not the only threat. Globally, water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and continues to grow rapidly as agricultural, industrial, and domestic demand increase. Within 25 years, nearly two billion people will live in regions that experience absolute water scarcity according to research by the World Bank.
Ninth, the success of the bottled water business is a clear indication of this growing demand. The industry is the fastest growing beverage market in the nation, a trend that is expected to continue with Perrier leading the charge. The company is nearly three times larger than their closest competitor, manages 75 springs across the U.S. alone, and sales exceed $1.5 billion a year, more than one-third of the $4 billion national market.
And tenth, water-bottling facilities in particular may pose a unique threat to Great Lakes conservation efforts. According to the International Joint Commission, when water is “captured” and entered into commerce, it may attract greater attention concerning international agreements. Undoubtedly, Perrier’s operation would shift a certain degree of decision-making away from the sovereign state of Michigan and toward global markets.
For ten compelling reasons, then, Perrier’s arrival should encourage Michigan, and each Great Lakes state as well as Canada, to shape their new identities in the global economy. Like oil to Iraq, rain forests to Brazil, and lobsters to the northeastern seaboard, water is the Great Lakes’ unique and exhaustible resource. Reconciling Perrier’s water-for-profit motive with the laudable public goal of reasonable water conservation will be difficult, but necessary.
As former Congressman Jim Wright wrote in his 1966 book titled The Coming Water Famine, “The crisis of our diminishing water resources is just as severe (if less obviously immediate) as any wartime crisis we have ever faced. Our survival is just as much at stake as it was at the time of Pearl Harbor, or the Argonne, or Gettysburg, or Saratoga.” To best conserve the Great Lakes’ clean fresh water supply, and avoid the impending global water war, Michigan must develop the awareness, the legal tools, and the modern public policy that is absolutely necessary to survive in a world that is changing so dramatically.