Activists seek tighter water laws
By Jeff Alexander
January 26, 2007
Several environmental groups today called on Michigan lawmakers to strengthen the state's water withdrawal law to prevent water bottling companies from harming trout streams.
Representatives of six environmental groups said the law, passed in February 2006, has inadvertently fueled new efforts to pump and bottle large quantities of groundwater. Groundwater is the lifeblood of Michigan's cold-water trout streams.
The criticism was triggered by Nestle Waters North America's plan to pump millions of gallons of groundwater from sites near the headwaters of the White River, in Newaygo County, and Twin and Chippewa creeks in Osceola County.
The environmental groups said Nestle's proposals are "likely the beginning of a water export rush and challenge for control over the state's waters."
"Drilling for water along our finest trout streams goes against Michigan values," said Mike Shriberg, Director of Environment Michigan. "When the Legislature enacted new water use laws in 2006, it did not intend to spark an invasion of trout streams and an attack on basic protections for the Great Lakes."
State Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, a Norton Shores Republican who co-sponsored the water withdrawal legislation, defended the law.
"The law put new protections in place as far as water withdrawals are concerned and I think we found a satisfactory balance between the needs of business, agriculture and the environment," Van Woerkom said.
Bob McCann, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said changing the law one year after it took effect would be premature.
The law was Michigan's first effort to regulate water withdrawals by water bottlers, golf courses, farmers and industries that pump water out of the ground, lakes, streams and the Great Lakes.
The law prohibits water withdrawals that harm trout and requires anyone who uses more than 2 million gallons of water daily from groundwater, lakes or streams to obtain a permit. Water bottling companies must get a state permit to pump more than 250,000 gallons of water daily.
Environmentalists said the law could subject Michigan water to widespread commercial exploitation because it allows water bottlers to ship water out of the Great Lakes basin if packaged in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons.
Critics also said the law has a regulatory loophole that presumes groundwater pumping will not harm trout streams if wells are at least 150 feet deep and 1,320 feet from the nearest trout stream.
The DEQ recently gave Nestle conditional approval to pump 70 million gallons of groundwater annually from natural springs that flow into Twin and Chippewa creeks, near Evart. The DEQ said Nestle could pump about 200 million gallons annually from that site without harming trout in those two streams.
Nestle's bid to pump spring water from a site in Newaygo County's Monroe Township has sparked intense opposition from area residents and environmentalists. One opponent called the Swiss-based Nestle a "foreign invader."
"The recent Nestle activity shows that the standard for protection for Michigan's most vulnerable streams is totally inadequate," said David Holtz, Michigan director of Clean Water Action. "There is a problem with the law and it's up to lawmakers to correct it."
Deb Muchmore, a spokeswoman for Nestle's Ice Mountain label, said Michigan's water use law is the toughest in the Great Lakes region. "We're going to comply with the law no matter what the law is," she said.
Nestle bottled about 226 million gallons of groundwater last year at its Ice Mountain facility in Stanwood. The company, which pumps water from a site in rural Mecosta County and buys water from the city of Evart, is considering building a second bottling facility in Evart.
Nestle and state officials have said the water law for the time used scientific standards to regulate large water withdrawals.
Critics claim those standards are too lenient. The environmental groups -- which included the Sierra Club and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation -- said trout should not be the only measure of whether a water withdrawal harms the environment.
"This standard assumes that water not directly used by fish is available for water prospecting, which defies the ecological maxim that every drop of water is used by natural ecosystems," the environmental groups said in a press release.