It doesn’t take an investment banker to see the flagrant weakness in Michigan law that allows bottled water companies to line their pockets while tapping our most valuable natural resources.
That weakness is highlighted in a recent decision by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to dismiss a challenge to a 2018 water withdrawal permit issued to Nestle.
The recent decision effectively allows the company to move forward with a 60 percent increase in pumping from a well it owns in Osceola County — allowing the company to suck 576,000 gallons per day from aquifers near Evart.
The judgment made by state officials declares the company played by the rules, and obtained a lawful permit. For a moment, we will set aside legitimate questions of environmental impacts that likely will be hashed out in court in coming years.
Let’s focus on the numbers involved here.
Nestle, because of a flimsy state permitting process, is allowed to pump 576,000 gallons of water from Michigan aquifers each day, and the only direct benefit to Michiganders is a $200 permit fee. Keep in mind the residents of Michigan own that water. That means, if the company pumps at maximum capacity, it could fill about 4.6 million of its 16.9 ounce plastic bottles each day. At the retail price per case for those crunchy plastic bottles that’s about $600,000 per day. Or more than $200 million per year.
All for a $200 permit fee?
It’s embarrassing not only because we’re getting fleeced, but because of what it says about the actual value we place on our most precious natural resource.
The company, and some others, may argue that a half million gallons pumped from the ground each day pales in comparison to many municipal water operations. And they would be right — for example, Traverse City’s water system sucks between 3 million and 14 million gallons of water each day from East Grand Traverse Bay.
But there’s a massive difference between a municipal water system and a plant that tops off plastic bottles bound for store shelves.
Generally, we view municipal water supplies as a public service that provides a basic resource — running water — that enables healthy, modern living.
Nestle on the other hand is pumping, bottling and exporting a natural resource we own collectively, and providing a fraction of what most people pay in annual municipal water bills in return.
Some would tout the 250-plus jobs generated by the bottling operation as the real economic benefit to our state. But considering Michigan boasts more than 4 million jobs, Nestle’s water plant isn’t exactly returning a noticeable impact to our state’s economy.
That’s why we hope our lawmakers, as they reconvene for a lame-duck legislative session in a few weeks, will take a few minutes to implement a meaningful system of taxation and regulation for commercial water extraction operations.
Some real, thoughtful lawmaking during a time when it seems nearly any recycling bin fodder passes as law, would be a nice change of pace.
In a state where we can’t seem to adequately fund our schools or “fix the damn roads” it seems absurd to allow such a giveaway.
We shouldn’t expect anyone else to respect and value our natural resources as long as our own laws pass them off as worthless.