Ankle deep in water, 83-year-old Jim Maturen unreeled his fishing line and watched it plunge into Michigan’s Chippewa Creek. Attached to the end was a thermometer. When the water’s temperature appeared on the display, retired surveyor John McLane scribbled down the reading on a piece of paper. The two men then moved on to another section of stream, then to five other spots along the Chippewa and another creek, the Twin. Later that month, they went back with a yardstick to measure the creeks’ depths. They were low. Too low for trout.
With their simple study, McLane and Maturen, a citizen scientist who worked in law enforcement for 31 years, wanted to show that trout can’t survive in these waterways. According to Maturen and a number of others who live close by, the beverage behemoth Nestlé is to blame. The company has been depleting the creeks’ groundwater sources for its Ice Mountain bottled water.
In Osceola Township, where Maturen conducted his tests, there isn’t a mountain—icy or otherwise—in sight, but Nestlé has been drawing hundreds of gallons from the ground for its Ice Mountain brand every minute for more than 15 years. Recently the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved Nestlé’s request to increase that withdrawal from 250 to 400 gallons per minute.
“The good lord only made so many trout streams,” Maturen says. As a lifelong fisherman and conservationist, he knows what a trout stream looks like―and the current Chippewa and Twin aren’t it. According to DEQ records, trout swam in both of these creeks 18 years ago. Last summer, Maturen and McLane saw no fish at all.
They’re not the only ones concerned. After Nestlé asked the state to increase its allowance from the pump in 2016, public meetings drew hundreds—more than 600 by Maturen’s count—from not only the township but also Detroit and Flint, Michigan. DEQ also received more than 80,000 comments opposing Nestlé’s request and just 75 in favor.
Yet after months of review and what DEQ Director C. Heidi Grether called “the most extensive analysis of any water withdrawal in Michigan history,” the state approved Nestlé’s permit in April, as long as the company submits a monitoring plan and collects baseline data. If the DEQ approves the plan and deems the data adequate, Nestlé will be allowed to withdraw up to 400 gallons every minute from the ground in central Michigan to be bottled up.
Many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), say the state should have collected real-time data on the streams to get a better handle on the potential effects of removing more water. Nestlé's own study, conducted in 2000 when the company was looking for natural springs, shows that the increase could lower water levels in streams and nearby wetlands. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.) The DEQ decision, say residents, shows how the state’s water policy puts private industry’s interests before the public’s.
Nestlé’s water bottling has run into problems in Michigan before. MCWC took the company to court in 2001 when residents of Mecosta County grew concerned over how the company’s groundwater pumping had changed Dead Stream and nearby wetlands. (Nestlé’s operation there and the one in Osecola Township draw from the same watershed.) Residents won the case, and Nestlé had to stop pumping there temporarily. After Nestlé appealed, a judge ruled in 2009 that the company could take an average 218 gallons per minute instead of the 400 it was originally allowed.
In 2008 Congress enacted the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among eight states and two Canadian provinces to regulate water diversions from the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin. Each state had to figure out how it was going to comply with the new law. For its part, Michigan decided to employ models to figure out how much a citizen, company, or farmer could take from a particular stream without causing damage. The models estimate how much that system has in reserve and how much can harmlessly be taken out.
That may sound good, but the state never has to check in real life whether a stream has slowed to a trickle because someone has sucked up too much water. “According to state law, it’s all about the spreadsheet,” says Patricia Norris, a natural resources policy professor at Michigan State University. But conducting real-time monitoring on every section of Michigan’s 30,000 miles of river would cost $18 million, according to some estimates, and the system wasn’t set up to police users, say water-use experts in the state. If someone sees a stream running low, however, she can bring a case to court. That’s what Peggy Case, president of MCWC, plans to do if necessary.
Case’s organization plans to legally challenge the permit to lay the groundwork for a trial. It will base its arguments on the precedent set by the Mecosta County case, information Nestlé provided to DEQ for its increased Osceola water withdrawal, and evidence that the company’s current water withdrawals are already causing damage.
“Privatization of water, in our view, is wrong. It belongs to the people and it belongs to the ecosystem,” says Case, even if state law doesn’t currently prevent it. As opposed to other types of water withdrawals, such as for farming, she says, “When you put it in bottles and ship it out of the watershed, it’s gone.” With enough evidence, which includes Maturen’s and McLane’s scribbles from the banks of the Chippewa and the Twin, Michiganders may be able to show that Nestlé is taking more out of the environment than just water.
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