Attorney General Weighs In: Perrier Plan is a Great Lakes
opinion highlights inconsistent state water policy
March, after it had advertised "crystal clear well
water" for sale in the New York Times and
the Wall Street Journal, the village of Webster,
New York received a curt letter from Michigans Republican
Governor John Engler.
is located within the (Great Lakes) basin," Gov.
Engler warned Wilbur Bey, the villages mayor, citing
provisions of the 1986 federal Water Resources Development
Act. "Even though the water in question is groundwater,
it appears to be hydraulically connected to Lake Ontario.
If this proves to be the case, then the diversion or export
of this water out of the basin will require the approval
of each governor from the eight Great Lakes states."
Yet in August 2001, just five months later, the Engler
administration approved the Perrier companys application
to withdraw and sell some 105 million gallons of groundwater
from Michigans Mecosta County. The sale of Michigans
groundwater, complained Webster village officials, appeared
almost identical to the sale in New York that Mr. Engler
"There is a great disparity in the way this is working,"
said David Galeazzo, Websters Superintendent of
Public Works, in an interview. "On the one hand he
tells us if we want to sell water from our system, we
have to get approval from governors of all eight states.
Now, all of a sudden, the great governor of the state
of Michigan is bypassing the procedures. How is the political
game played? Id like to learn it so I can do the
Last month Jennifer Granholm, Michigans Democratic
Attorney General and a leading candidate for governor,
agreed. After weeks of deliberation, Ms. Granholm concluded
in a formal opinion that the Perrier Groups bid
to bottle and sell millions of gallons of ground water
from central Michigan was a diversion of Great Lakes water
as defined by the federal Water Resources Development
Act. She said the diversion required unanimous approval
from the governors of the eight Great Lakes states.
In a September 13, 2001 letter to Mr. Engler and to several
state legislators, Ms. Granholm urged Mr. Engler to "consult
with the other Great Lakes governors and premiers to determine
whether and to what extent this and similar water removal
proposals should be permitted."
"Such a review," Ms. Granholm added, "will
best balance the states commitment to regional protection
of the Great Lakes, the publics concern that Great
Lakes water not be turned into a commodity, and the undisputed
need to permit productive and efficient use of the water
resources of the Great Lakes Basin."
Not surprisingly the governor and his environmental aides
summarily rejected Ms. Granholms suggestion. "This
opinion isnt something the administration asked
for," said Matt Resch, one of the governors
spokesman. "It doesnt change the governors
view of the situation."
The dispute, however, shows no sign of ending there. Critics
of the Perrier proposal noted the apparent inconsistency
in the governors long-standing policy of protecting
Great Lakes water. Mr. Engler, for instance, personally
intervened and helped to quash a Canadian companys
bid in 1998 to haul tanker loads of Lake Superior off
And when the community of Lowell, Indiana asked permission
in 1992 to tap Lake Michigan in hopes of gaining access
to a safe public drinking water supply, Gov. Engler also
vetoed the request.
Meanwhile the Engler administration not only approved
Perriers water drilling permit in Michigan, it also
awarded the company a taxpayer-financed subsidy package
of infrastructure improvements, worker training, and property
and education tax abatements worth $9.6 million.
In her letter to the governor, Ms. Granholm noted the
difference in Mr. Englers treatment of water bottling
proposals inside and outside of Michigan. "The recent
proposal by the Village of Webster, New York, is a good
example," she wrote. "Swift opposition by the
state of Michigan to that proposal sent a clear signal
that we are willing to protect Great Lakes water. But
that signal must not be interpreted as self-serving, aimed
only at proposals to sell Great Lakes water removed from
The Michigan Attorney Generals opinion is almost
certain to strengthen the views of lawmakers in Michigan
and in other states who oppose the Perrier plan. Duane
Cheney, a Democratic state Representative from Indiana,
protested Perriers proposal in a letter last July
to Mr. Engler and to Indianas Democratic Governor
"Michigan should not be allowed to sell any amount
of water commercially for local benefit, especially when
you consider that many cities and towns in our state are
prohibited from using Lake Michigan water for drinking
water," Rep. Cheney said.
"If we allow one state to derive a commercial benefit
from the sale of a natural resource shared by many states,
the result will be a drastic reduction in our region's
water quantities, which would lead to further catastrophes
when that water is needed to address serious shortfalls
in local supplies."
Similarly, Representative Julie Dennis, a Democratic member
of the Michigan House from Muskegon, has publicly opposed
Perriers water diversion and sale and is considering
introducing new legislation to strengthen Michigans
Ms. Dennis and other Michigan lawmakers are concerned
for valid reasons. The Perrier Groups $60 million
bottling plant in Mecosta County in central Michigan is
the states largest groundwater bottling facility.
It dwarfs other bottling plants in Michigan.
As the leading water bottler in the nation, the Perrier
Groups market share is twice that of its nearest
competitor. The companys growth represents 34 percent
of the industrys expansion in the United States
from 1992 to 2000, according to industry analysts.
Those kind of numbers encouraged some central Michigan
residents and business leaders to embrace the companys
plan as a way to diversify the local economy with a clean,
stable industry. The Perrier Group plans to start off
with approximately 45 workers earning up to $18 per hour.
a far larger number of residents, led by Michigan Citizens
for Water Conservation, are concerned about the broader
effects of Perriers high-capacity well and whether
the Perrier Group has the right to transfer Great Lakes
water out of a central Michigan watershed for commercial
The Water Resources Development Act was approved by Congress
in 1986 to conserve the limited quantity of water available
in the Great Lakes. The law requires the governors of
Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New
York, Wisconsin, and Michigan to collectively endorse
any plan to tap Great Lakes water, including rivers and
streams, for use outside the basin.
The law, however, left murky the rules for withdrawing
or diverting groundwater for sale. Thats the reason
that Michigan state Senator Christopher Dingell (D-Trenton),
state Representative William ONeil (D-Allen Park),
Ms. Dennis, and Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
asked Michigans Attorney General if the federal
law applied to Perriers plan.
For her part, Ms. Granholms opinion was unambiguous.
"The proposal," she said, "would result
in the withdrawal of ground water from a spring that feeds
the Little Muskegon River, a tributary to Lake Michigan."
"Unless an effective decision-making system is utilized
for dealing with such proposals," Ms. Granholm concluded,
"I foresee a huge increase in Great Lakes water withdrawals
over the next few years."
Andrew Guy, an environmental journalist and grassroots
organizer, is based in the Michigan Land Use Institutes
new regional office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at 616-308-6250
Gives Perrier Permission to Export Great Lakes Water
Urges Perrier to Defer Perrier Permit
from Attorney General Jennifer Granholm to Michigan lawmakers.
Letter from Attorney General Jennifer Granholm to Michigan
Governor John Engler.