A David and Goliath Battle for Water Protection

A David and Goliath Battle for Water Protection

by Terry Swier, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

In late November 2000, a few property owners in Mecosta County learned of Perrier Group of America’s plan to initially withdraw and sell up to 720,000 gallons of spring water per day from a local spring that directly feeds the Little Muskegon River, a tributary of Lake Michigan. Out of concern a grassroots group was formed, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC). MCWC’s goal is to conserve, preserve, and protect Michigan’s water resources and the public trust interest in those resources. MCWC’s initial concerns were about the impact the Perrier plan would have on lake levels, wells, wetlands, and wildlife.

With reports of low Great Lakes levels and water shortages around the world, in the thirsty United States, Southwest, and even here in parts of Michigan, MCWC quickly learned that the Perrier proposal could have far-reaching implications for the State. Perrier is now proposing to withdraw up to 576,000 gallons a day of spring water, piping it 12 miles across numerous streams and wetlands to a bottling plant and then shipping the water out of the State for sale and use, with 65% of the water being consumed outside of the Great Lakes Basin. The group’s concern is the Perrier project will set a precedent for other water bottling companies for diversions of our state’s water.

According to the International Bottled Water Association, U.S. sales of bottled water grew to 3.6 billion gallons in 1998 and are growing at the rate of 10% per year. Single-serving containers account for 75% of that growth. Today it’s Mecosta County — it could be any county or community in Michigan tomorrow (or, for that matter, any Great Lakes state or province).

Influenced by an intensive letter writing campaign by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, three Michigan legislators — Representatives Julie Dennis and William O’Neil and Senator Christopher Dingell — requested an opinion from Michigan’s Attorney General, Jennifer Granholm, on Perrier’s proposal. The legislators asked Attorney General Granholm whether Perrier’s proposal to pump and bottle water from a spring in Mecosta County would constitute a diversion or export of water under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). If so, taking water from a tributary of the Great Lakes Basin to outside of the Basin would require approval from all eight Great Lakes governors and consultation with the premiers of Ontario and Quebec. Currently Michigan groundwater withdrawals are regulated by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act, focusing largely on water quality and little on hydrological impacts.

The Attorney General released two letters of opinion in September 2001, one to Governor John Engler and another to the three Michigan legislators. In both letters she concluded that the Perrier proposal would constitute a diversion or export under the WRDA. The Attorney General further urged Governor Engler to consult with the Governors of other Great Lakes States and the Canadian premiers of Ontario and Quebec. In addition, she urged the Governor and the legislators to work toward establishing a comprehensive water use law to protect Michigan’s waters. Michigan is one of two states in the Great Lakes Basin that does not have a water use law.

Governor Engler immediately rejected the Attorney General’s plea and wrote a letter to Ohio’s Governor Robert Taft providing Governor Taft with his own information concerning the Perrier project. This letter from Governor Engler to Governor Taft can be found on MCWC’s website, www.saveMIwater.org. MCWC disagrees with Governor Engler’s conclusions.

Despite Governor Engler’s comments that Michigan’s water is “our most precious asset” and that “the Great Lakes will never be for sale,” his administration is giving away our state’s water to the foreign-owned Perrier bottling company. Perrier will be provided with over $2.2 million in state education tax abatements, more than $7.1 million in local property tax abatements, $80,000 in new worker training assistance, and $150,000 for site development/public infrastructure, and will create only 80 new jobs in the next six years, with little benefit in exchange.

Instead of updating our water laws that focus on water quality and not the quantity of withdrawals or the hydrogeological impacts, the Engler Administration relied solely on Perrier’s limited test data and projections in approving Perrier’s well permits. Even at the reduced rate of withdrawal of spring water of 576,000 gallons a day, Perrier’s modeling shows a 25% reduction in flow of water to Osprey Lake, and a 23% reduction in the flow of a public stream that flows to Lake Michigan. An even greater concern is that Perrier’s assurances of little or no impact come with no guarantees, nor is there any regulatory agency that will monitor the impacts of the plan or have the authority to stop them if problems arise. Perrier, whose poor environmental reputation was made known to the governor in an advisor’s “conscience-clearing” memo, is projected to make one-half million to one-and-one-half million dollars a day and pay nothing to the state for this resource.

MCWC and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in September 2001 against Perrier and the owners of the site where the water is to be withdrawn to preserve the State’s and citizens’ claims to their water rights. MCWC and its co-plaintiffs, who have a legal interest in the public trust and the waters of the state, are seeking to protect their rights and interests in commonly held waters—and the public trust or common interest in these waters—from unlawful use, diversion, and appropriation. “We need to resolve these issues for Michigan now, before it is too late. This is not about Perrier. If not contested, the precedent of the Perrier proposal will be devastating for Michigan and other Great Lakes states, both economically and environmentally”, said Jim Olson, attorney for the group. The case will go to court in late spring or early summer 2002.

An appeal was also filed with the Michigan Court of Appeals in August questioning the denial in a separate case of the citizens’ referendum vote on Morton Township’s zoning amendments for Perrier’s project. A date has not yet been set for oral arguments in the appeal.

Perrier has started building its massive bottling plant and laying out their pipeline, despite the circuit judge’s warnings that until all permits have been obtained and legal questions are decided, it does so at its own risk.

In what we believe to be a clear signal that the citizens of Michigan are not going to stand by and just let our water be given away, membership in MCWC has grown in just one year to over 1,200 members. MCWC is a typical grassroots group — membership funded and volunteer driven. It continues to hold fundraisers and raise awareness through education of its members and the public of water issues facing Michigan and the world. MCWC has embarked on a long-term fight to protect Michigan’s water. Like David fighting Goliath, MCWC cannot do it alone, and has joined with other environmental groups and legislators to develop both short- and long-term solutions.

Concerned people can learn more about protecting our state’s water by visiting MCWC at their website www.saveMIwater.org, or by calling (231)-972-8856.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.