On Michigan’s water: “We’ve been lousy stewards of it”
“Make no little plans,” said famed architect Daniel Burnham.
Perhaps Gretchen Whitmer channeled Burnham when she laid out her vision for Michigan’s water if elected to succeed Gov. Rick Snyder in January.
On a campaign website that does not have “little plans” for water, Whitmer listed bottled water as an issue needing action.
The Democratic candidate said “controlling water withdrawals” with an emphasis on bottled water would be a priority.
Whitmer refers to Nestle and the recent decision to allow the company to increase pumping of groundwater for bottled water in spite of overwhelming public comments opposed to the withdrawal.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tally was 80,000 against the Nestle request and 75 in support of it.
Bottled water has been one of the most contentious water issues in recent Michigan environmental history, pitting powerful Nestle against grassroots water conservation activists since 2000.
Whitmer’s site says “being good stewards of the Great Lakes means we have a responsibility to ensure the longevity of our freshwater resources for generations to come, not selling it at a nominal price for sale outside of our borders.”
Responding to a Great Lakes Now inquiry, Whitmer doubled-down on her bottled water concerns.
“It’s ridiculous that Nestle can pull as much water out of the state as they want for barely any fee while dozens of communities in Michigan don’t have clean drinking water.”
Going beyond bottled water, Whitmer said, “Michigan is home to 21 percent of the earth’s fresh water, and we’ve been lousy stewards of it.”
She also advocated for reforming laws that govern water diversions.
“The current law that regulates water diversion from the Great Lakes basin is ten years old. If we want to become a world leader in water stewardship, we’ve got to update the laws that control our water,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer was referring to the Great Lakes Compact which contains a provision that exempts water in containers less than 5.7 gallons, essentially bottled water, from the ban on diversions. It has long been thought of as an arbitrary loophole put in the Compact to make it easier to approve for state legislators in the region.
Critics of the loophole say it weakens the Compact and could eventually expose it to risk of diversions from outside the region.
Individual states have the option of setting a tighter bottled water standard than what is in the Compact but to date, no state has.
In a 2017 examination of the bottled water issue and the Great Lakes Compact, Michigan’s Freshwater Future said the compact should be looked at as a “foundation.”
“But how we choose to adapt, interpret, and implement it in the case of Nestlé and beyond will have tremendous consequences in the years to come,” the organization wrote in a position paper.
One option to even the social and environmental justice scale when it comes to bottled water is to levy a fee on each bottle sold. The revenue could be saved to a fund that invests in improving water infrastructure like lead service lines, or set aside for water affordability helping low income urban dwellers pay their bills.
On pricing of the water, Nestle spokesperson Jason Stewart told Great Lakes Now “we support balanced water pricing that shares the costs of managing water resources equitably among all water users.”
Stewart said, “It would be inappropriate for the state to impose an excise tax on just one type of water user.” He called the tax “discriminatory” and said it “also likely violates the Michigan constitution’s prohibition on taxes on food items.”
Stewart said Nestle is committed to constructive dialogue with policymakers on these issues.
The Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) endorsed Whitmer for governor. MLCV’S Executive Director Lisa Wozniak told Great Lakes Now that Michigan’s Nestle decision was “reckless,” and it “symbolizes larger issues with drinking water in Michigan.”
Wozniak praised the Great Lakes Compact in general, but said it needs to be strengthened when it comes to bottled water.
Noting that changes to the Compact require approval of the other Great Lakes states, Wozniak said, “Michigan can lead by closing the bottled water loophole at the state level.”
That would leave it to Whitmer, if elected, to navigate that political minefield.
Featured Image: Misuse of plastic!, Photo by Kate Ter Haar via flickr cc 2.0
Editor’s note: Great Lakes Now was unable to reach the campaign of Bill Schuette, the current attorney general and Whitmer’s Republican opponent, for a comment. We hope to feature Schuette’s water policy proposals in a future report.