Where They're Boiling Over Water

By Janet Ginsburg

The trickles of water bubbling up through the leaf litter on the edge of Osprey Lake don't look like much. Most folks hiking through the woods of The Sanctuary, an 850-acre private deer-hunting ranch in Mecosta County, Mich., don't even notice them. But for the past two years, these springs have been the center of Brendan O'Rourke's life. "Springs are our lifeblood," says O'Rourke, a plant manager for Nestlé's Ice Mountain brand bottled water.

The problem is that Ice Mountain's pumps are bringing a lot more than water to the surface. Ever since Nestlé Waters North America Inc.--which until April was called Perrier Group of America--announced that it was setting up shop in Michigan, people have either loved the idea or hated it. What some see as an economic godsend for this agricultural region, others call an environmental sellout to Big Business.

The Sanctuary Spring is part of the headwaters of the Little Muskegon river, which feeds the Muskegon, which in turn flows into Lake Michigan. Starting in May, some of that water--as much as 262 million gallons per year--is flowing instead through a 12-mile, stainless steel pipeline to O'Rourke's sparkling, 410,000-square-foot bottling plant across the county in Stanwood. The company has invested more than $100 million so far, including extensive environmental studies of the springs. But two lawsuits, including a federal case over Indian treaty rights, threaten to scuttle the project. And the specter of a Great Lakes water grab, under rules established by the North American Free Trade Agreement, hangs in the air.

In this waterlogged state, dotted with 11,000 lakes and bordered by four Great ones--Michigan, Huron, Superior, and Erie--Nestlé's (NSRGY ) project has focused everyone's attention on the riches beneath their feet. "It's a wake-up call reminding us that the state has no water policy. None," says Keith Schneider, program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, an environmental group based in Beulah.

The seeds of this battle were sown in the fall of 2000, when Terry Swier, a trim, bespectacled, retired librarian, attended a meeting about the project and was dismayed by what she heard. She helped found Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, which now has 1,300 members. The group filed suit against the company last year challenging its legal right to the springs. "Whose water is it? That has been our battle cry from Day One," says Swier.

But Nestlé has plenty of supporters. "This is probably the best project we've ever brought into Mecosta County," says Maxine McClelland, township supervisor of Big Rapids, who has been working on economic development in the area for 30 years. "Those of us who are third- and fourth-generation here want to see a diversified economy where our kids don't have to move away to find jobs." By the end of the year, the Ice Mountain plant will employ 100 people at wages ranging from $12 to $23 per hour--well above the $7 many jobs in the area pay--and will pump hundreds of thousands of tax dollars a year into the municipal kitty.

That misses the point, says Jim Olson, MCWC's lawyer, during a recent fund-raising rally in Newaygo. As a silent auction brought in about $4,000 for the legal war chest, the crowd of 150 listened intently as Olson took them through the basics of Michigan water law. Nestlé may have a 99-year lease on the land, but the water itself is public resource, he claims. Under the doctrine of "reasonable use," Olson explains, "the person who owns water in a stream can use it to drink, boat, swim, bathe--as long as it's in connection with their land. That does not include the right to transport water to some distant land for [some other] use. We're arguing that the same is true with groundwater--you cannot sever it from the estate."

That's splitting hairs, counters Republican State Senator Ken Sikkema, who chaired a task force last year looking at Michigan water issues. "A farmer pumps water out of the ground, waters potatoes, and sends the potatoes to Illinois--there's no real difference. The water in those potatoes is gone."

But while nobody is talking about banning potato exports, Great Lakes water has become a hot commodity on an increasingly parched planet. Two-thirds of the world's population could face chronic water shortages by 2025, according to the U.N. Bulk water shipments are already big business. In 1998, Nova Group, a company based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was given a provincial permit to ship 159 million gallons from Lake Superior by supertanker to Asia annually. Public outrage on both sides of the border forced Nova to back down, but the project raised a red flag. Under NAFTA rules, if the Nova project had been allowed to proceed, there would be no turning off the Great Lakes spigot. Once one company is allowed to trade a particular good, that right cannot be arbitrarily revoked or refused to others.

For nearly 100 years, the governors and premiers of the eight states and two Canadian provinces of the Great Lakes Basin have banded together in an effort to keep their liquid treasure--the basin holds 20% of the world's freshwater--to themselves. In 1995, frightened by a proposed pipeline to the American West, they created a voluntary pact by which a single "no" vote could veto plans for a large withdrawal. But the Nova project fell far below the trigger amount to call a vote. To plug the hole, last year they signed Annex 2001. Now, new projects have to show that they not only won't hurt the watershed but will improve it--a tall order. Lawmakers have two years to work out the details.

Those two years could be critical. According to Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, Ice Mountain could set just as dangerous a precedent as Nova. The only difference is that Ice Mountain's withdrawal is 63 millions gallons a year bigger. In a Sept. 13, 2001, letter to Governor John Engler, she warned that until a consistent review policy is in place, there could be "a massive water grab." She wants the governor to call for a vote on Ice Mountain.

Three Indian tribes agree, and in March slapped Nestlé and Engler with a federal suit citing an 1836 treaty protecting fishing and hunting rights in the Great Lakes region. "Our fear is that the export could significantly and permanently damage the fishery," says Gerald V. Chingwa of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

But Engler appointee David K. Ladd, head of the Office of Great Lakes, says bottled water is a special case. The International Joint Commission overseeing Great Lakes policy proposed in a 1999 report an exception for water shipped in containers of 20 liters or less. Besides, he says, bottled water legally is a "food" regulated by the Food & Drug Administration. "There's no difference between Perrier bottling water, Gerber making baby food, or Miller brewing beer. When you incorporate water from the basin into a product, it's no longer water per se," he says.

Whatever it is, it brings in big money. Since 1997, bottled water sales in the U.S. have shot up 35%, to more than $6 billion. Nestlé's 15 brands--including Calistoga, Deer Park, Perrier, Poland Spring, and Zephyrhills--dominate with about a third of the market. But unlike Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) and PepsiCo Inc. (PEP ), whose fast-growing Dasani and Aquafina brands are purified municipal tap water, springs are Nestlé's niche.

Brendan O'Rourke points to stacks of studies he says prove the safety of pumping at Sanctuary Spring. The 262 million gallons are less than 1% of the annual recharge rate of the local watershed, equal to just 14 minutes of evaporation off the surface of Lake Michigan, he says, noting: "We have spent a lot of time, a lot of money doing tests, ensuring that we can safely operate. We're the model for other industries." But to MCWC and the three tribes, the question is whether Ice Mountain is a model for the privatization of public water. In a world where water by the bottle is worth more than oil, the Great Lakes may hold more wealth than OPEC.

Ginsburg writes about science and the environment from Chicago.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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