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The tiny US town fighting for its water

  • Written by  Katie Burton
  • Published in Water
The tiny US town fighting for its water
24 Apr
In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, now a small town is embroiled in a fight with Nestlé to keep hold of its own spring water 

(UPDATE: This article has been amended to include quotes from Nestlé.)

Three hours north of Detroit lies Osceola Township, a small rural community of around 1,800 people and home to a Christian summer camp. Situated in the state of Michigan, whose Great Lakes account for 21 per cent of the world’s surface fresh water, Osceola’s greatest resource resides in its rivers, streams and springs. Two cold water tributaries run through the town on their way to the Muskegon River – the Twin and Chippewa Creeks. Now, residents and campaigners in this quiet town are embroiled in an ongoing battle to keep this water out of private hands, specifically those working for Nestlé.

Since 2001, Nestlé Waters North America, Inc. has removed more than four billion gallons of groundwater from its three wells in the Muskegon River watershed. The spring water is sent to the company’s bottling facility just south of Osceola in Stanwood, where it is transformed into Ice Mountain, a popular bottled water brand. In July 2016, Nestlé applied for a permit that would allow it to increase the amount of water it pumps from one well (known as White Pine Spring) in Osceola, from 250 gallons of water per minute to 400.

Nestlé’s original application was denied, due to the results of a computer-based assessment tool designed by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) which is used to determine the impact of large quantity withdrawal on nearby water resources. Nestlé persuaded the state that the tool was too conservative and, following a new site-specific review, the DEQ granted the permit.

Explaining the process, Arlene Anderson-Vincent, Ice Mountain's natural resource manager says: 'Because the tool is based on generalized information, an applicant can submit more detailed site-specific scientific data to the MDEQ for consideration. We submitted data gathered over 17 years from our extensive monitoring system from the specific site for consideration.  The MDEQ reviewed the additional site-specific information and approved our application.'

The application was met with widespread criticism. Over 80,000 people, including nine tribal governments, wrote to local officials asking them not to grant the permit. The subjects of the objections were numerous but largely fell within two categories – environmental concerns and ethical considerations regarding the privatisation of water. The DEQ said that it wasn’t able to base decisions on public opinion but that the application ‘meets the requirements for approval under Section 17 of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, 1976 PA 399’. Findings from the review were detailed in a 58-page recommendation memo.

The memo notes that one area of the watershed could be depleted by the increased withdrawal but concludes that, overall, granting the permit will not cause ‘pollution, destruction, or impairment of natural resources’ as long as the special conditions are followed. The final permit requires Nestlé to monitor the at-risk area for depletion problems. Monitoring includes taking hourly readings of stage, discharge and temperature of surface water in the summer months, monthly measurements of streamflow and of water level and vertical gradients in groundwater, along with yearly analyses of macroinvertebrate and fish. In a statement, DEQ director C. Heidi Grether said: ‘The scope and detail of the department’s review of the Nestlé permit application represents the most extensive analysis of any water withdrawal in Michigan history.’

The fight isn’t over for Nestlé. In order to boost water flow from the wellhead, the company needs to build a booster station about three miles away, connected to the well by a pipeline. Last December, Mason County judge, Susan Sniegowski, ruled that Nestlé could build the station but Osceola County officials filed an appeal in January. They argue that Nestlé has failed to show that the building will serve ‘public convenience and necessity’ as required by local planning laws for essential public service buildings.

MuskegoneditThe Little Muskegon River as viewed downstream from a bridge on the White Pine Trail in Morley, Michigan (Image: Tim Kiser)

For many residents, it’s the DEQ’s grant of the permit that really rankles. Nestlé says that its activities do not have a damaging environmental impact. Anderson-Vincent commented to Agence France-Presse in February that there had been ‘no measurable changes to the streams, the aquatic life there’. But local and national water conservation groups claim that the DEQ ignored evidence of environmental damage. They say that the DEQ mainly based its decision on computer-based modelling and research conducted by Nestlé itself.

Campaigners at FLOW (For the Love of Water), an NGO concerned with protecting the Great Lakes, sent a letter to the DEQ stating that, according to hydrogeological and aquatic impact experts, Nestlé did not sufficiently evaluate existing hydrogeological and environmental conditions in its application. They also claimed that removing water from springs has a knock-on effect on streams and wetlands. According to the letter, lower water levels in streams results in higher water temperature and is disastrous to fish such as trout which require cold water to survive.

‘Nestlé and the DEQ are engaging in magical thinking,’ says Dave Dempsey of FLOW. ‘Nestlé is pulling water out of the waterhead and claiming that the ecosystem is still functioning as it was before. It doesn’t make sense. It’s simply unscientific, and unlawful.’ He adds that the DEQ repeatedly asked Nestlé for more data during its review, some of which was provided, but that it never received all the information that was needed. ‘The DEQ has twisted the law from one where you have to see the data in advance, to one where you issue the permit on the condition that it [Nestlé] gets the data.’

trouteditRainbow trout like those found in Michigan rivers

In another letter, citizens working with the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), one of the most outspoken campaign groups bringing attention to the issue, argued that its own studies revealed loss of surface water of five to 12 inches in the Twin and Chippewa creeks, even at the current level of water extraction.

Nestlé disgarees with this assessment. 'Claims that there has been a decrease in streamflow is not supported by scientific data,' says Arlene Anderson-Vincent. 'Stream flow and level data has been collected for the past 17 years by professional scientists that follow the United States Geological Survey (USGS) protocols. This data does not show any decrease in streamflows or levels.'

Mike Ripley works for the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (CORA), an organisation comprised of five Native American tribes in Michigan who maintain historic rights to hunt and fish in the area in accordance with an 1836 treaty. His concern is that the natural resources, which the federal government and the state has trust responsibility to protect on behalf of the tribes, are being damaged. Like Dempsey, he says the real problem is lack of proper data.

‘The company [Nestlé] has been pumping since 2009 at various quantities and it hasn’t provided the baseline conditions before it started,’ he says. ‘We don’t know how many fish there were but we have seen other reports from the year 2000 by the State National Resource Agency that found quite a few cold-water trout in our streams. Now if you go back and look, those trout are no longer there. We asked the state to look into it and it did not. It said it was the responsibility of the company. That’s a problem that we have here. The state relies on corporations to report conditions.’

FlageditReproduction of the flag of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, one of the five tribes under the mantle of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority (Image: Xasartha)

Other Michigan residents are treating the battle as an ethical one. In 2016, the US bottled water market was worth $16billion and sales outpaced those of fizzy drinks for the first time. Nestlé is a major player in the industry and in 2015 it sold $7.7billion worth of bottled water worldwide. It is particularly profitable in Michigan because it accesses each well for only $200 a year, a sum that will remain the same at White Pine Spring despite the increased withdrawal rate. This fee is linked to a local doctrine known as ‘reasonable use’.

The reasonable use system means that nobody in the state owns the groundwater. Landowners can use the water under or on their property (and sell it) as long they don’t impair the quantity and quality of the water for others. It’s a law that also enables agricultural businesses, golf courses and municipalities to extract groundwater. Campaigners view the practical operation of the doctrine as unfair. They argue that water is a public resource and a fundamental human right. As such, they say that corporations should not be able to profit from it, particularly when that profit is not returned to the communities from which the water comes from.

NestleNestlé maintains that keeping a presence in small towns such as Osceola aids the area’s economy

Big companies such as Nestlé say that their presence in small towns brings in money and jobs. Nestlé points to the fact that it spends $18million a year in Michigan, including $2.4million in taxes in 2016. In nearby Mecosta County, Nestlé employs more than 250 people at its factory and in Evart, the city that abuts Osceola Township, Nestlé paid for new public recreational facilities and an environmental protection fund (Ice Mountain provided an initial $500,000 to the fund).

But, according to Nick Ladd, Osceola Township doesn’t see the benefits of Nestlé’s presence. ‘At the end of the day, Nestlé is taking water from the township and is making billions of dollars from it,’ he says. ‘It’s going to be able to take 400 gallons a minute, which works out to 576,000 gallons every 24 hours. It’s selling the water in tiny 15-ounce bottles in the store. You do the maths. It’s not committed at all to doing anything to help the township. We still have people here who don’t have water in their home. That’s the poverty level we have.’

For Mike Ripley of CORA, the main concern is that lenient policies such as the ‘reasonable use’ doctrine will lure others into the area and exacerbate existing environmental problems. ‘It’s to do with cumulative impacts. This isn’t the only water bottling facility in the area. Michigan now looks like it’s a lenient state so other water bottling companies could target Michigan and move in. We are seeing indications of that already. They are using water as a commodity when it should be for the good of all people.’

FlinteditWorkers distribute bottled water to the residents of Flint

In Michigan, the ‘water as a public resource’ argument has undoubtedly been bolstered by the crisis in the city of Flint, a few hours drive southeast of Osceola Township. In 2014, it was revealed that drinking water in Flint was contaminated by high levels of lead and other dangerous heavy metals. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016 and Flint residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. To date, five state officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter as a result of the incident.

At the start of April, shortly after the Osceola Township permit decision, the governor of Flint, Rick Snyder, announced that Michigan was going to stop providing free bottled water because lead levels in the groundwater are now safe. Some residents argue that until all lead pipes in the town are replaced, the state should continue to provide bottled water.

The combination of the two decisions in Flint and Osceola Township has exacerbated the anger of some commentators, who draw a parallel between Nestlé’s cheap access to water, and the end of free water for the residents of Flint. ‘We find it horrifying that there should be that injustice in the state of Michigan,’ says Peggy Case, president of MCWC. ‘First, the government can poison them and deprive them of water. At the same time, it gifts Nestlé with millions of gallons of free water.’


In Osceola Township the debate rages on. There’s a sense of dejection among some former campaigners but where Nestlé goes, those willing to challenge will always follow. MCWC is used to drawn-out struggles. They previously engaged in a protracted, nine-year legal challenge against Nestlé’s actives in Mecosta County, just two miles away from Osceola. The case only came to an end in 2009 when the two sides reached a settlement that ensured Nestlé had to reduce pumping earlier in the spring and continue low pumping rates during the summer when water levels are low.

This time, MCWC has already submitted its intent to challenge the permit to the DEQ. They are supported in their efforts by FLOW who, as well as working on individual cases are setting their sights high. The organisation is currently drafting a piece of legislation that would enshrine the principle of water as a public resource into state law. They hope to garner support from friendly legislators and produce a model piece of state legislation that could be adopted throughout the country.

What’s clear is that the most active campaigners in Michigan won’t give up, but as many have discovered before, keeping hold of water isn’t easy.

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