Last year, an enterprising reporter for the MLive media group was digging through public notices and saw one concerning a request Nestle made to significantly increase the amount of water it was taking from the ground near its facilities in Evart. When he reported this out, the environmental community predictably raised a giant fuss, since it seemed to be moving along on greased skids as quietly as possible to avoid uppity citizens. The DEQ put off its final decision and today is hearing from the public.
In making the request, Nestle of course said that they had the science that said they could do it without harming anyone else’s rights to water use. Of course they did. If their science said they were going to cause neighboring wells to immediately go dry, it would be insane behavior for them to share it. And, of course, we went down this road before, when Nestle first came to Michigan and said it had the science to show that its pumping operations in Mecosta County wouldn’t harm people’s rights to water use. In reality, it did, and it took shenanigans from the Taylor state Supreme Court to shield the corporation from proper accountability.
The issue is getting confused, mostly because people are very passionate about water, but mostly don’t understand their relationship to the state’s natural resources. One of the biggies floating around social media is that the state is selling Michigan groundwater to Nestle for pennies while the people in Flint go without clean drinking water. If Flint isn’t affixed, then they are up in arms that Nestle is “buying” water for pennies on general principle.
For starters, Nestle isn’t buying water, which is great because the state has zero authority to sell Michigan water. Authority to sell imagines ownership. The state doesn’t own the water, therefore the state cannot sell the water. The state’s authority is limited to managing the state’s groundwater — along with all of its other natural resources — on behalf of the real owners, the people of Michigan.
As part of that ownership arrangement, the people of Michigan are permitted to use water to make products. That includes using it to irrigate crops (i.e. make food), make cement, or mix it with additives to make soda pop; and because that right to use it includes corporations like Coca-Cola and Bell’s, the right to use water to make a product extends to Nestle. Nestle is not purchasing a lot more water, it has requested to use a lot more water to make a product.
That product is bottled water. Nestle is taking groundwater and adding value by making it safe to drink. Drink water straight from a Michigan river, and you’re likely to spend a lot of time on the toilet. Drink it from a bottle of water treated for parasites by Nestle, and you have solid assurance you won’t get sick.
There are reasons to object to this on the grounds that bottled water creates a packaging problem after the water is consumed. But there’s a more fundamental reason to object on general principle, which is that bottled water comes at the expense of our faith in public water. s an engineering and public health triumph of the 20th century.
Public water was an engineering and public health triumph of the 20th century. The idea that you could walk into someone’s home, turn on a tap and get safe drinking water immediately is a luxury Americans fail to appreciate. But, towards the end of the century, when ideological forces began to attack the idea of competent government at any level there was a soft attack on the idea of public water. “Of course you can’t trust what comes out of the tap, it’s government that’s supplying it,” was the underlying message. And, lo and behold, onto the market arrived bottle water in one- and two-gallon jugs that conveniently fit into your refrigerator. These jugs came complete with graphics of pristine mountain streams or South Pacific islands, just to remind you that from your tap comes water from decaying, gunk-filled pipes but from the jug comes crystal clear water from some pristine vacation spot.
This created a cycle by which people’s suspicions about state bureaucrats turned into suspicions about the local water plant, which convinced people that they were better off paying $2 a gallon for the same thing that they otherwise pay pennies for out of the tap. That, in turn, depressed interest in maintaining and updating water infrastructure, which contributed considerably to the failure to make proper decisions in Flint. That is, Flint’s water scandal and Nestle’s request are unrelated on the back end, on the front end where Nestle’s marketing of its water sewed doubts about the efficacy of bottled water, not so much.
Unfortunately, treating Nestle’s request as a matter of an evil corporation buying water clouds the very real issue of how to dispose of common property. Principles like riparian rights — the right to use a water source abutting your property without impairment by other users — would be a much sounder ground to operate from than attacking corporate greed. Railing against corporate greed makes for good soundbites and it whips up activists and people paying half-attention, but grounding an argument in, “Their use harms my use,” actually conforms to Michigan legal tradition and returns the issue to handling bottled water as owners rather than activists vs. corporations.