Commercial use of aquifers could
strain Great Lakes
By Gary Heinlein and Charlie Cain
The Detroit News
STANWOOD, Mich. -- A key battle over Great Lakes water
is being fought in quiet, rural Mecosta County, 50 miles
from Lake Michigan.
There, in the sandy interior of north-central Michigan,
the biggest player in the $35 billion international bottled
water industry is piping 130 gallons of water a minute,
24 hours a day, from spongy ground beneath a hunting preserve.
Bottled as Ice Mountain, it sells for $1.25 retail, because
it carries one of the industry's top designations: spring
The plant, owned by Nestle' Waters North America Inc.,
is a prime example of increasing water fights in Michigan,
a state with aquifers so abundant that nobody questioned
where their next drink was coming from. In fact, Michigan
currently has the laxest water laws in the Great Lakes
basin: It requires no permit for ground water pumping.
Now, from Metro Detroit to Mecosta County, there's concern
that below-ground reservoirs -- intricately connected
to the Great Lakes --will be drawn down to dangerously
low levels. Pumping groundwater impacts the already low
Great Lakes because the aquifers feed streams and they,
in turn, feed the lakes.
State policy-makers will have to balance the prosperity
linked to water bottling, urbanization and farm irrigation
against the potential for environmental degradation and
localized water shortages.
In the county Circuit Court in Big Rapids, neighbors
of the Ice Mountain operation argue in their lawsuit that
the bottling company will lower the nearby Dead Stream,
a lake and the Muskegon River that flow into Lake Michigan.
Nestle' Waters, subsidiary of Swiss-based Nestlé
SA, answers that it spent more than $1 million assuring
that won't happen -- more of an effort than numerous other
major commercial water users put forth before starting
Water use hasn't increased much in the Great Lakes basin
for several years, but a University of Arizona expert
warns that there's a voracious appetite for pristine waters
like those flowing in Michigan's underground aquifers.
"There's a lot of money at stake and no limit to
the number of water boondoggles," said Robert Glennon,
author of a 2002 book about ground water pumping. His
book details cases in which pumping too much water too
fast from aquifers has hurt streams, lakes, plants and
"It's like a giant milk shake that you drink with
a straw," Glennon explains. "If you put an infinite
number of straws in the same glass, that's a recipe for
One too many straws
Mark Shaffer, who lives in Holly in northwest Oakland
County, sees evidence of at least one too many straws
in the aquifer that supplies well water to his and neighbors'
homes near the Renaissance Festival grounds.
Shaffer got embroiled in efforts to halt water pumping
at a nearby gravel pit after his lawn pond dried up two
years ago. Neighbors' ponds -- and wells -- also dried
up. Shaffer estimates a nearby gravel pit operator, ordered
to stop in April, pumped 25 billion gallons of water from
the ground in the last four years.
Mining for gravel cuts through layers of earth and, often,
aquifers. The least costly way to keep going is to prevent
the pit from being flooded by sucking out the water with
"We have taken water for granted," said Shaffer,
a newly minted water rights activist. "We need a
law that says you cannot site a well and you cannot pump
any water until you've had an environmental study, and
it was done by a reputable company."
Another example of Michigan water troubles is seen in
parts of Monroe County, where groundwater supplies have
failed to meet residents' needs in recent years because
of drought and significant undergroundwater use by rock
There's also evidence of overuse in Saginaw County, according
to health department environmental manager Kevin Datte.
He says at least 140 residential wells have failed since
1994 and some townships are limiting development because
of the problem.
Datte says the dry wells are at least partly linked to
groundwater pumping to irrigate, a trend among Michigan
farmers needing consistent moisture to grow seed crops
and vegetables for the fast-food industry. Scientists
say as much as 70 percent of the water sprayed by irrigating
equipment is lost to evaporation.
"Some irrigation wells can draw 900 million gallons
a season -- the same as is used in a year's time for all
residential wells in five townships," Datte said.
"I expect this problem to continue."
A Lansing lawyer representing Walther Farms, one of the
county's large crop operations, disputes that irrigation
causes the problem. Its attorney, Michael Brown, blames
a combination of drought, out-of-date residential wells
and seasonal fluctuations in water tables.
Brown said a hydrologist hired by farmers found the Saginaw
aquifer stores 99 billion gallons of water -- so much
that "you could drill an irrigation well every square
mile and have enough to last 134 years."
Saginaw County residents Bill and Karen Hollingsworth,
who have lived south of Merrill for 38 years, are frustrated
that in this saturated region they've been without well
water for about 1 1/2 months during the peak irrigation
period each summer for four years. They blame a large
farm with a contract to grow high-moisture spuds favored
by potato chip makers.
"Something needs to be done, but we can't find anybody
who can," says Bill Hollingsworth, a 63-year-old
retired farm equipment mechanic. "If anybody complains,
they just say there's no law that says they can't do it."
What is reasonable?
Michigan regulations follow an age-old concept: Anyone
is entitled to drill into aquifers and withdraw a reasonable
quantity of water. What's reasonable? Any amount, as long
as it doesn't harm neighbors using the same aquifer --
and those neighbors must prove that in court.
"Any groundwater withdrawal is going to have some
kind of effect; society decides what effect is acceptable,"
said Jim Nicholas, district chief for the U.S. Geological
Survey in Michigan. "Maybe you didn't lower the water
much in the affected stream, but trout populations have
been reduced because there's not as much cold water going
In some Southwestern states, groundwater pumping has
depleted aquifers to the point that the streams they used
to supply now are dry, except during rainy periods. That's
evidence of the mounting paucity in parched areas whose
farms and cities, some fear, one day will use their increasing
political clout to come after Great Lakes water.
Water shortages also are part of what's driving the $35
billion international bottled water business, and has
companies like Nestlé hurrying to build new plants
in Michigan and other spots blessed with ample undergroundwater.
U.S. residents consumed 21.2 gallons of bottled water
per person in 2002, compared with 1.6 gallons each in
1976, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. of New
When wells dry up, the water tastes bad or harmful chemicals
invade, the last alternative for many people is to get
their drinking water from store shelves.
The U.S. is a $7.7-billion marketplace for bottled water.
There are 36 bottled water permit-holders in Michigan
alone. Even if Great Lakes water never is pumped westward,
experts say, it will end up there anyway, in millions
of neatly labeled bottles on supermarket shelves.
A perfect illustration
Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the battle over the Mecosta
County plant is a perfect illustration of the need to
develop better laws by which to parcel out groundwater.
As attorney general, she faulted Gov. John Engler for
welcoming the Ice Mountain plant -- and granting it $10
million in tax breaks -- without first getting the green
light from his counterparts in other Great Lakes states.
Granholm said other Great Lakes governors should have
been consulted, since much of the firm's bottled water
leaves the state and is, therefore, a diversion of water
outside the Great Lakes basin. The federal Water Resources
Development Act, governing Great Lakes water, requires
such approval from other governors, she said in a letter
But Republicans, who control the Legislature and have
spent much of the last two months drafting two such statutes,
don't agree with Granholm. They see little difference
between water that's exported in bottles and water that
leaves the state as part of melons, baby food, cans of
paint and soft drinks.
In its current form, Republican-backed legislation would
require Michigan to inventory its system of aquifers,
many of which still are unmapped, and establish a more
orderly way to resolve water disputes. Granholm says those
are baby steps in the right direction.
"One bill only maps the aquifers and the other allows
for resolution of conflicts, once a conflict exists,"
she said. "I was hopeful the Legislature would move
toward a strong groundwater proposal. That's not happened
Sen. Patricia Birkholz, a Republican from Saugatuck on
the Lake Michigan shore, chaired hours of complicated
Senate committee hearings while crafting one of the proposals.
She said lawmakers must move cautiously.
"We decided we need to proceed in a scientific way,
and our first step needed to be mapping," Birkholz
The Nestlé corporation supports efforts at new
water withdrawal laws, at least in concept. It has a $100-million
investment in Michigan at stake, and plans to expand.
Still, retired school librarian Terry Swier, who's in
the thick of the court battle as head of Michigan Citizens
for Water Conservation, is unconvinced any private firm
can be induced to care much about the state's natural
assets. Swier and her husband, Gary, have put on hold
the quieter lifestyle they planned when they retired to
a home on Mecosta County's Horseshoe Lake.
"For me, this is the future of Michigan's waters,"
says Swier, 59. "Diversion diminishes water levels
in lakes, streams and wetlands. Are we going to end up
like the western states?"