Is Great Lakes water for sale? That’s the issue on the table in Michigan right now, where the Perrier Group of America has begun construction on a 100 million dollar water bottling operation. Last year, government officials in Wisconsin rejected a similar proposal from Perrier. The Michigan plan has sparked local opposition and more. The start of the plant’s construction has given birth to concerns about whether groundwater in Great Lakes states should be considered part of the Great Lakes water basin. And if it is, some question whether it should be for sale. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell reports:
Is Great Lakes water for sale? That’s the issue on the table in Michigan right now, where the Perrier Group of America has begun construction on a 100 million dollar water bottling operation. Last year, government officials in Wisconsin rejected a similar proposal from Perrier. The Michigan plan has sparked local opposition and more. The start of the plant’s construction has given birth to concerns about whether groundwater in Great Lakes states should be considered part of the Great Lakes water basin. And if it is, some question whether it should be for sale. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell reports.
Eight Mile Road in rural Mecosta County, Michigan is one of the area’s busier roads, one of the few ways to get to the interstate. It’s surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland. And at its peak, you can see the Little Muskegon River Valley as it stretches for miles across this point where Michigan becomes Northern Michigan.
(sound of construction)
When Perrier Group Project Manager Brendan O’Rourke saw this stretch of Eight Mile Road, he knew that it would be the perfect place for Perrier’s new Ice Mountain spring water bottling operation.
“Clearly, it’s a beautiful place to live and work, it has abundant natural spring water, the highway system allows for easy access to the marketplace, there’s an available work force and there’s high quality spring water.”
But local resident Terry Swier rarely uses Eight Mile Road anymore. She says it upsets her too much to see the walls of the Perrier plant rising out of what was once a cornfield. Swier is president of the group Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, a group that formed out of citizen opposition to the plant. Since December, Swier says her group has attracted more than 12-hundred local residents. Most of them are concerned about how local streams, rivers and lakes will be affected by an operation that plans to pump more than 700-thousand gallons of water a day from the ground. But despite her efforts to stop the plant’s construction, work has continued and the plant should be ready to begin operation next Spring.
“It’s just very frustrating how they have the arrogance to say that ‘we can proceed.’ It’s like not even paying attention to the people who are here in the area.”
Perrier officials insist the company has made every effort to listen to local residents and address their concerns. They say they’ve done studies that show the environmental impact will be minimal. And they say the extra 600-thousand dollars a year in tax revenue the plant will generate will go a long way in Mecosta County. Local government officials agree. But Mecosta Township Supervisor John Boyd says he’s more excited by the possibility that Perrier may bring up to 200 new jobs to the area.
“I’ve been to meetings and they say ‘Well, what’s the tax base, what’d you gain on the tax base?’ and I say ‘Hell, I ain’t even looked at it’, because basically, we’re looking for good jobs that sustain people, that will let our kids stay here, stay in the community, and last, we’re looking for a business that will be here tomorrow when we’re gone.”
But construction of the plant and local opposition to it are only the starting points for an issue that has reached far beyond the farmlands of Mecosta County. That’s because the natural springs that lie beneath the ground there feed into the Little Muskegon River, which in turn, feeds into Lake Michigan. Of primary concern to critics is a federal law that requires the approval of all eight Great Lakes governors for any water diversion from the Great Lakes basin. In September, Michigan’s attorney general concluded that the groundwater in Mecosta County should indeed be considered Great Lakes water, and its sale should be approved by the governors. Michigan’s Governor John Engler, though, disagrees on both points and has even offered Perrier nearly ten million dollars in tax breaks. That’s something that frustrates Keith Schneider, of the Michigan Land Use Institute.
“If states are approving diversions of Great Lakes water, they need to consult each other. And the reason they need to consult each other is because we sit on the largest source of fresh water on the planet and this resource is getting ever more valuable. I mean we’re essentially the Saudi Arabia of water here.”
If it’s proven nothing else, the controversy over the Perrier plant has exposed the lack of solid, enforceable groundwater policy throughout the Great Lakes. But in Michigan, that may be changing. In the state capitol of Lansing, various legislative and environmental groups have already begun to unveil their own water control packages—they include everything from the abolishment of tax breaks for companies that bottle water to mandatory assurances that local water quality won’t be sacrificed by those companies. And some groups are calling for a law that would require companies that sell water to pay royalties in the same way that oil and gas companies do now. If it’s ever passed, such a royalty would put a definitive value on water as a natural resource. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell in Mecosta County, Michigan.