Michigan water advocates call for “Public Justice” to protect people’s rights

Michigan water advocates call for “Public Justice” to protect people’s rights
September 19, 2018 Gary Wilson
Photo by Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press

Traverse City nonprofit FLOW warns of “unauthorized privatization”

Photo by davedempseybooks.com

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Adviser, Photo by davedempseybooks.com

Traverse City water advocacy nonprofit FLOW today called for legislation that it said would protect Michigan’s public waters and people’s water rights from what it calls “unauthorized privatization.”

The move is in reaction to multiple water issues including water shutoffs in economically disadvantaged communities, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to allow Nestle to pump more groundwater for bottled water in spite of overwhelming public comment against the request.

Impetus for this model legislation came from citizens at Nestle bottled water hearings and at a 2017 water conference in Flint where a diverse group of advocates convened, Flow Senior Adviser Dave Dempsey said in a press release.

 “Michigan’s ‘collapse’ of water protection

Photo by flowforwater.org

Jim Olson, President, Photo by flowforwater.org

The group decried Michigan’s “collapse of water protection, water service shutoffs and ignoring its duty to protect these commons under the public trust doctrine and constitution,” Dempsey said.

The Public Trust Doctrine says that natural resources like water are to be held “in trust” by the state for the benefit of the people.

FLOW President Jim Olson said government leaders have retreated from their duties “to protect public water, health and the common good above all else.”

Olson said this has lead to a “culture of indifference” where political agendas and economic interests are prioritized over water, people and health.

Olson is best known for his legal battles with Nestle when they first came to Michigan to set up a bottled water operation in the early 2,000’s.

Nestle…opposed a tax on bottled water sales

According to its press release, FLOW’s draft water legislation would:

  • Affirm public ownership over water.
  • Prohibit the sale of water except for authorized bottled water by a licensing and royalty system.
  • Recoup royalties from bottled water sales for public purposes. Royalties would be placed into a trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated purposes.
photo courtesy of nestle-watersna.com

Nestle Committed to Michigan, photo by nestle-watersna.com

A Nestle spokesperson declined to comment on the royalty concept saying the company had not seen the proposal.

Nestle previously told Great Lakes Now that it opposed a tax on bottled water sales claiming it would be “discriminatory” and that it likely violated Michigan’s constitution.

Concerning water inequity and economically disadvantaged communities, a company spokesperson told Great Lakes Now that Nestle has provided the equivalent of 6.5 million bottles of water for Flint’s 10,000 public school students.

“Nestlé Waters North America will continue to work closely with Mayor Weaver and the entire Flint community to understand how we can best help meet their needs,” Nestle’s Jason Stewart told Great Lakes Now.

“Losing access to water takes a dreadful toll”

In Detroit, Lila Cabbil from the water rights advocacy group People’s Water Board said in reference to shutoffs that “she has seen firsthand countless times how losing access to water takes a dreadful toll on health and human dignity.”

“Let the tragedies of Flint and Detroit shape our future so that people of Michigan never have to worry about access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water supplies across Michigan,” Cabbil said.

Wayne State University environmental Law Professor Noah Hall advised FLOW on the proposed model legislation and said,  “It is based on the historic principle that water is for the public and cannot be owned or sold.”  He stated that “water is a human right.”

Hall has written extensively on water law, its governance and Great Lakes water issues.

FLOW said it hopes the proposed model legislation will focus public debate on the issues and that it will provide a blueprint for similar legislation in the Great Lakes basin.

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Editor’s note: Great Lakes Now provides regular coverage of bottled water and access to safe drinking water issues as events warrant. See our documentary Tapping the Great Lakes for expanded coverage.

Featured Image: March and rally calling for a moratorium on water shutoffs from Cobo Center to hart Plaza in Detroit, Friday, July 18, 2014. Photo by Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press

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