Kari Lydersen
Ice Mountain

There Is No Ice Mountain: Bottled Water Battles

In Mecosta County, Michigan and Around the World...Bottled Water is Just One More Example of the Privatization of Resources To the residents of Mecosta County and the surrounding areas in central Michigan , water is central to their identity. They fish for trout and watch ospreys and eagles feeding in the streams.

They spend warm days by the ponds and small lakes that dot the woodlands. And of course the Great Lakes , which hold a fifth of the world's fresh water, are a constant presence.

So when a huge multinational bottled water company decided to move in and start pumping over half a million gallons of water a day out of the springs that feed their lakes and streams, the residents took it personally.

And they don’t see it as just an issue affecting their neck of the woods in Michigan. They see it as a symbol of things to come in the, privatization and commercialization of natural resources that will leave average people in Chicago or California or New York struggling for basic necessities like water while major corporations make a profit on selling off these same resources.

In this case, the harbinger of things to come is Ice Mountain bottled water, a brand sold extensively in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.

To meet the exponentially growing demand for bottled water, in the late '90s Perrier subsidiary Great Spring Waters of America sought to open a major pumping and bottling operation in the Midwest.

First the company tried to set up shop in Adams County, Wisconsin , but they were driven away by intense opposition from the residents and local government there.

So in 2001 Perrier, which has since been bought by Nestle Waters North America, was welcomed with open arms by then-Michigan Gov. John Engler, who allowed the company to open up a plant for only a licensing fee of less than $100 per year and offered millions in tax breaks to boot.

Shortly after the pumping plan was announced a grassroots movement of local residents -- “ranging from Native Americans to Navy SEALS” in one activist’s words -- coalesced to oppose it. They say that not only would the pumping have harmful effects on the environment and quality of life for residents, but it would also set a chilling precedent in selling off the area's natural resources to a multinational company.

This coalition has used both legal and direct action approaches to raise awareness of the issue and try to stop the pumping plan. Among other things, the group Sweetwater Alliance staged a “canoe-in” along one of the streams fed by the spring.

In January 2001 the residents of Mecosta County circulated petitions to force an election on zoning changes requested by the company. Voters in Mecosta and nearby Morton townships voted 2,123 to 1,521 (total, in separate votes for each township) to reject the zoning change.

“This vote demonstrates that Michigan citizens do not want water sold out from under them for the sake of private gain, at least not without their consent through a law passed by the legislature that protects the public trust and the water needed for existing and future farming, recreation and business,” said Jim Olson, attorney for the group Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.

Despite the vote, construction started on the plant even before all the necessary permits had been obtained, and for the past year and a half the plant has been pumping 100 to 300 gallons per minute out of an aquifer on a hunting preserve in Mecosta County . Then the water is piped 11 miles away to a bottling plant in Stanwood, where it is prepared for shipping and sale in plastic bottles emblazoned with the Ice Mountain logo.

In the fall of 2001 Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) along with four individual local residents filed a lawsuit in Mecosta County Circuit Court seeking to prevent the pumping, arguing that it was not a legally defined "reasonable use" of water and violated state and federal regulations regarding water rights.

Judge Lawrence Root ruled in a 60-page opinion that Nestle did indeed need to stop pumping water from the spring.

But the company appealed, and pumping continues.

Activists say the ruling and the eventual outcome of the case will set a precedent for Michigan and possibly other states in deciding whether and how companies are allowed to extract water for profit.

Opponents of the pumping note that most people are shocked to learn that Nestle is removing the water without paying anything to the state or county other than the minimal licensing fees. Since this is also the case in many other counties and municipalities, the decision in the case could have widespread implications.

“If water is going to be treated as a commodity like this, this is going to be a serious issue everywhere,” said Bob Russell, who runs a bed and breakfast inn along the lake in Traverse City and also runs a non-profit anti-nuclear, pro-peace organization. “I’m afraid we’ll see aquifers are drained nationally from the Dakotas to Texas. We do some guerrilla theater where we have [scenes of] military guarding water extraction pipelines. I don’t mean to be too dark, but I can definitely see that happening.”

In Michigan there are few regulations relating to the use of groundwater; it is essentially seen as part of the property it is on.

"Ice Mountain paid $75 to $85 to the state for a permit application fee and with that it can essentially gain billions by selling [the water]," said Scott Howard, another attorney working on the case. "There's no other industry that gets to do that -- timber and mining industries don't get to do that. This is a precedent-setting case about how our common law water rights will be defined and what folks can do with those rights. Can folks take that water, bottle it and sell it for profit?"

Howard notes that under Michigan law, one can make "reasonable use" of water on the property they own, but the water can't be diverted. The suit argues that the pumping of water to sell all over the Midwest is clearly a diversion.

There is also a federal law, the Water Resources Development Act, prohibiting the diversion of water headed to the Great Lakes. All the streams affected by the Ice Mountain plant eventually flow into the Little Muskegon River, which goes into the Big Muskegon River, which goes to Lake Michigan. So under this measure opposition from a governor of any of the other Great Lakes states could theoretically put a halt to the pumping. But the measure has proven to be toothless so far, with no governors choosing to take a stand on the issue.

In court Olson argued that if the pumping is not stopped altogether, at the very least it should be limited to 100 gallons per minute instead of 400 or more.

The lawsuit cites studies finding that pumping 400 gallons a minute will reduce the flow of water in lakes and streams fed by the spring; in Deadstream by a half inch during the summer and in Thompson Lake by two and a quarter inches.

"That might not sound like a lot, but in reality that could be irreparable harm," said Rhonda Huff, vice president of MCWC. "Then you have to talk about erosion, invasive species that could come in if the water level drops, it sounds like you're throwing the whole ecosystem off."

Already this summer, residents have watched Deadstream drop by about four inches and develop into a partial mud flat.

“It was always called Deadstream, but now it really is dead,” said Olson ruefully.

Nestle’s lawyers argue that there is no way to prove what caused the drop in Deadstream, and maintain that there is no significant risk to the environment or the wetlands from the pumping. In its response to the suit Nestle argued that residents will "suffer no harm whatsoever from Nestle's groundwater pumping" and that the water reduction in Deadstream would actually be good for trout by lowering the overall water temperature.

But residents think differently.

“These streams support the wild iris that only grows in Michigan; the possum, raccoon, deer, owls and other birds that drink from them; the dragonflies and butterflies; the turtles, who are having a hard time already; and of course the fish,” said Lois Hartzler, who notes that she lives in Coldwater Township about 25 miles from the plant, in a town called Lake. “All of these things depend on the wetlands.”

Huff, who is a resident of neighboring Osceola County, points out that Nestle also has two experimental wells operating in Osceola and hopes to open a plant there. Residents had thought the company wouldn’t be able to start a full-scale pumping operation until August of 2004 since residents won a referendum prohibiting a zoning change before that date. But now, Huff said, it looks like Nestle is going to be able to start commercial pumping without the zoning change.

Blaine Stevenson, a professor of sociology at Central Michigan University and a water rights activist, is afraid that considering the free reign Nestle has had to bottle in the area, other bottled water companies will come too.

”This will just open the floodgates,” he said. “There are these bottled water wars going on now, with Coke and Pepsi and the others battling it out. They’re all going to want to come in here."

Opponents say they see this situation as even more unjust given that not far away in Detroit, about 8,000 low-income families are without running water at all because they are unable to pay their water bills or live in buildings with outstanding back bills.

"It's really frightening that our state would grant tax abatements to this plant while there are people in our cities who don't have drinking water," said Eartha Melzer, a journalist who has been documenting the whole struggle.

Melzer described the plant as a sign that “we're moving toward a third world model in this country,” meaning an economy where natural resources are exploited and exported for profit by large companies while the people who live among those resources don’t profit from the sale or even get to use the resources for their own needs – for example, the situation with oil in Colombia or Nigeria where multinational corporations make a huge profit while natives of the area live in poverty.

Holly Wren Spaulding, a member of the Sweetwater Alliance who has traveled to Brazil, South Africa and other parts of the world for her work in the water rights movement, sees the issue as part of a world-wide battle against privatization of water and natural resources.

"This isn't just about the environment, this is about social justice," she said. ""At the gut level people believe water is for everybody. They think it's wrong for a transnational company to be allowed to come in and take water and profit from it."

She notes that there is also a movement opposing a Nestle/Perrier bottling plant in Sao Lourenco in Brazil, where people blame the plant for drying up one of the country's historic sources of mineral water. The Serra da Mantiqueira region of Brazil is famous for its Circuito das Aguas, or "water circuits," with high mineral content and medicinal properties.

Four small towns, including Sao Lourenco, were built up around these water circuits in the 19th century. Now people say the mineral content of the water is being reduced by over-pumping by Nestle/Perrier for its Pure Life brand. Non-governmental organizations were formed to oppose the pumping, and in 2001 the federal government launched an investigation into the company on the grounds it was violating constitutional prohibitions on demineralizing water.

"If it is pumped in quantities greater than nature can replace it, its mineral content will gradually decrease, bringing the change in taste that we were noticing," said Franklin Frederick, a member of the International Free Water Academy, in a recent interview with the journal Mountain Research and Development.

There is clearly a water crisis around the world, exacerbated by deforestation, drought and lack of infrastructure in poor countries that prevents even available water from reaching much of the population. But for the most part the U.S. remains blissfully unaware of the crisis, consuming an average 92 gallons of fresh water daily, compared to 44 gallons for Europeans and five gallons for Africans.

The mushrooming popularity of bottled water in a country where tap water is safe to drink is symbolic of the drive to consume without thinking about the bigger picture. In the year 2000, according to the book "Blue Gold" by Maude Barlow, over eight billion gallons of water were bottled and traded globally, over 90 percent in non-renewable plastic.

Activists in Michigan see the battle against Ice Mountain as a way not only to protect their own streams and lakes but to bring the larger issues of water conservation and rights to the attention of the American public.

"I think in the last year people in the state have become much more aware that privatization is a threat to our water," said Melzer. "It's only recently that people have realized water isn't a limitless resource, and that it is vulnerable to exploitation by corporations."

Sweet Deception

Nestle Waters North America Inc. is the largest bottled water company in the country, according to its web site. The Connecticut-based company, a subsidiary of Swiss-based Nestle SA, distributes eight domestic brands as well as imported brands. In addition to Ice Mountain, the domestics are Arrowhead, Calistoga, Deer Park, Great Bear, Poland Spring, Zephyrhills and Ozarka.

Imported brands include Perrier from the south of France, Aberfoyle Nestle Pure Life from Ontario and Acqua Panna from Tuscany (in ).

Blurbs on the company’s web site paint idyllic pictures of the clear bubbling springs in bucolic mountains or countrysides that the waters come from.

For example water from the same spring that Ozarka is drawn from in Texas was supposedly enjoyed by cowboys during “dusty cattle drives,” and Zephyrhills comes from “mineral-rich limestone” in Florida that used to be under the sea.

In describing Poland Spring, which it calls the country’s number-one bottled water, it says: “In the 19th century, Poland Spring was a world-renowned spa. City folk would come for cool relaxation and a tall glass of Poland Spring - straight from the source deep in the Maine wilderness.”

But a class action lawsuit filed in June in Connecticut Superior Court charges Nestle for false advertising and deceiving its clients in regards to the true source of Poland Spring water.

In reality, the lawsuit notes, the spring in question dried up about 35 years ago and the bottled water is now taken from man-made wells as far as 30 miles away from the original site, many of them surrounded by asphalt parking lots or other potentially contaminated areas.

“Consumers purchase Poland Spring thinking they are getting a higher-quality natural spring water, but Poland Spring is neither natural nor spring water, and in fact comes from sources of a lesser quality than some tap water,” says a statement from attorney Tom Sobol, who filed the complaint.

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