State OKs permit letting Nestle draw more water in west Michigan

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

State officials on Monday cleared Nestle Waters North America for a permit to increase groundwater withdrawals 60 percent from a west Michigan aquifer, a move denounced by environmentalists.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — along with the Department of Natural Resources and the Attorney General’s Office — decided Nestle’s application meets state standards and wouldn’t hurt the water supply. After the state approves a monitoring plan that Nestle is required to submit, the company can start withdrawing up to 400 gallons per minute from a White Pine Springs well near Evart for its Ice Mountain bottled water brand.

“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,” DEQ Director C. Heidi Grether said in a statement. “We are hopeful that whether residents agree with the Nestlé permitting decision or not, they will acknowledge and respect the work that MDEQ staff did to thoroughly and conscientiously apply the law in reviewing the permit.”

State reviews determined the accelerated withdrawals by the Swiss company with North American headquarters in Connecticut wouldn’t hurt the watershed or nearby wildlife. But state officials said they would monitor surface waters and do periodic biological surveys to ensure the local aquatic life and habitat isn’t hurt.

“We will need time to carefully review the specifics, but will comply with all permit requirements. We appreciate the MDEQ’s careful review and consideration of our application, in what it has called its most thorough review ever, and we look forward to providing them with the monitoring plans as required,” said Arlene Anderson-Vincent, natural resources manager Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water in Stanwood.

The move frustrated environmentalists including Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“Today’s decision by the Department of Environmental Quality is deeply disappointing and represents yet another fundamental failure by the agency to safeguard Michigan’s precious water resources. Michigan’s abundant water defines who we are, and we have a responsibility to protect our water for future generations,” Wozniak said in a Monday statement.

“Sadly, the DEQ chose to give the green light to a foreign company to continue pumping Michigan water virtually unchecked, hanging a ‘For Sale’ sign on Michigan’s abundant water resources. The impact of this reckless decision will be felt for generations, with negative impacts on Michigan’s lakes, rivers and streams.”

The state department acknowledged most of the more than 80,000 public comments opposed the permit, “but most of them related to issues of public policy which are not, and should not be, part of an administrative permit decision,” Grether said. “We cannot base our decisions on public opinion because our department is required to follow the rule of law when making determinations.”

At an April hearing, the Michigan chapter chairman of the Sierra Club argued that the increased withdrawal proposal is controversial in part because it is being done “largely of having to take Nestle’s word for what impacts it’s having.”

The company still faces an obstacle to its expansion because it still needs a permit to build a boost pump for the increased groundwater withdrawals. Osceola Township has appealed a Mason County judge’s ruling in December that allows the bottled-water company to proceed with building a new 12-by-22-foot booster pumping station in western Michigan.

The township asked the Michigan Court of Appeals “to correct one serious error” the local government alleges the lower circuit court made in its decision to allow Nestle to build a booster pumping station.

The township denied Nestle’s application to build the new station because the company “failed to show that the booster pump building would serve the ‘public convenience and necessity,’ as required for essential public service buildings under a local zoning ordinance, according to the application for appeal.

Nestle needs the pump station to increase water pressure along a pipeline that would allow the company to transport more water. The permit, issued Monday, lets Nestle increase the amount of water it takes from an underground aquifer from 250 to 400 gallons per minute.

Nestle paid a $5,000 application fee and will continue to pay an annual reporting fee of $200 to extract 576,000 gallons per day of Michigan groundwater. There is no extra expense for the increased withdrawal, which drew complaints from environmental groups and residents at the April 2017 public hearing.

In the recommendation memo, Eric Oswald, Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division director, acknowledged that one area of the watershed could be hurt by the accelerated withdrawals.

“There is one area, SF-8, where the model, simulating pumping at 400 gpm (gallons per minute) after 20 years, predicts a streamflow depletion >20 percent of the index flow calculated by DEQ staff at this location as part of the permit application review,” Oswald wrote.

As a condition of the permit approval, the DEQ will require that area to be monitored closely for depletion problems.

Nestle should “reduce pumping immediately” if an “adverse resource impact” occurs — a depletion of the water in that area of 20 percent or more, Oswald said.

But the plan overall provides “modest economic benefits” and doesn’t harm the environment, Oswald said.

“Application materials, extensive evaluation and consideration by staff, along with experience with the aquifer in the area, lead staff to conclude that the aquifer can sustain the proposed withdrawal without deleterious effects to the dependent resources,” he wrote in the recommendation memo.

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