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Where Nestlé guzzles water, locals doubt claims of negligible impact

The Nestle bottled water plant near Stanwood, Mich., May 17, 2017. Nestle can package an average of 4.8 million bottles of water a day here with all lines running; in a state where access to clean, affordable water has dominated the news, the scale of the operation bothers many.
Gary Howe | The New York Times
The Nestle bottled water plant near Stanwood, Mich., May 17, 2017. Nestle can package an average of 4.8 million bottles of water a day here with all lines running; in a state where access to clean, affordable water has dominated the news, the scale of the operation bothers many.

The creek behind Maryann Borden's house was once "a lovely little stream that just babbled along and never changed for decades," she says. Now it is perhaps 12 feet across — half what it was, she reckons — with grassy islands impeding what used to be an uninterrupted flow.

"What happened?" Ms. Borden asked. "Nestlé happened. That's what I think." A lot of her neighbors think so, too.

Nestlé can pump more than 130 million gallons of water a year from a well near this northwestern Michigan town to bottle and sell. It's a big business: Last year, for the first time, bottled water outsold carbonated soft drinks in the United States.

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And now Nestlé wants more. It has applied to increase its pumping allowance at the well by 60 percent. The application, which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to rule on within months, has catalyzed opposition in part because of what Nestlé pays for most of the water it bottles: nothing. That is, it pays only a $200 annual permit fee to pump from wells it owns (like this one) or leases.

"Having anybody take away some of the very best water that should be going into the creeks and the Muskegon River and eventually Lake Michigan, that's a big deal," said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, who lives 25 miles from Evart. "That Nestlé does it for free? That's just crazy."

Actually, it is standard; landowners and commercial businesses have long had rights in much of the United States to use as much water as they want free if they drill and pump it themselves. Even customers on municipal water systems technically pay not for the water they use but for infrastructure and energy to deliver it.

Maryann Borden by the creek behind her home in Evart, Mich., May 17, 2017. Borden reckons that the creek is half the size it once was — a depletion she attributes to Nestle’s vast bottled water operations nearby. “What happened?” Borden asked. “Nestle happened. That’s what I think.”
Gary Howe | The New York Times
Maryann Borden by the creek behind her home in Evart, Mich., May 17, 2017. Borden reckons that the creek is half the size it once was — a depletion she attributes to Nestle’s vast bottled water operations nearby. “What happened?” Borden asked. “Nestle happened. That’s what I think.”

Still, in a state where access to clean, affordable water, most notably in Flint and Detroit, has dominated the news, it offends many that a foreign company can profit from bottling so much for so little. Even in this deeply conservative corner of rural America, fear of environmental despoliation and a sense of being exploited is propelling many to denounce Nestlé's demand for more.

Other major industries use far more water for the same $200 permit fee — Pfizer, for instance, used 6.9 billion gallons in 2015 for its medicine factory near Kalamazoo, according to state data — but most of that water is returned to the same watershed after use, Nestlé critics note.

The scale of Nestlé's operation in this sparsely populated region about 180 miles northwest of Detroit is immense. The company packages an average of 4.8 million bottles of water a day — more than 3,000 a minute — with all lines running at a plant about 40 miles south of Evart, said David Sommer, the factory manager.

That plant draws water from nine wells, including two owned by the City of Evart for which it pays the local municipal water rate of $3.50 per thousand gallons. Two are on the factory site and the other five are scattered around two rural counties, including the White Pines well near Evart that is the subject of the increase request.

All that pumping produces the spring water Ice Mountain label sold across the Upper Midwest and the filtered water line Pure Life, a national line. Spring water, defined as coming from sources that flow naturally at the land's surface, sells for more because it is perceived to be more authentic and healthier, Nestlé officials say.

"Spring water is a very different thing, a precious source," said Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer for Nestlé Waters North America. "We bring that to the people, that convenience, that ability to reseal, to take it with them, to have it when they need it. That's a very unique idea, a distinction."

To win over the state environmental agency, Nestlé must convince officials that it is a good steward of the environment. Arlene Anderson-Vincent, Nestlé's natural resources manager for Michigan, insisted, "We never take out more than nature's bringing back in."

Evart's city manager, Zackary Szakacs, supports Nestlé, asserting that the company's purchase of water from city-owned wells keeps costs low for the 2,000 residents of a community with a $19,000 median income. The company also pays for an environmental protection fund, new public recreational facilities and, more recently, for scientists and expertise to purify a city well Nestlé found to be tainted by perchlorate, a thyroid toxin.

"There's so much water in Osceola County, it's unbelievable," said Mr. Szakacs, who says he has not observed changes in the waterways. "We're so fortunate. We have a partnership with Nestlé Ice Mountain. It's a good partnership. We're just trying to survive so the town will live another 100 years."

Opposition is strong, though. In April, the zoning board in Osceola Township, the unincorporated area outside Evart where the White Pines well sits, voted 5 to 0 to reject Nestlé's application to build a $500,000 facility that would increase its current ability to pump if the state allows it.

Nestlé is appealing that ruling, saying the booster station is the most efficient way to move the increased water. If the company is unable to build the station, it may widen an existing pipeline or truck the water to the factory, Ms. Anderson-Vincent said.

There is no conclusive scientific data that Nestlé has depleted or altered the ecosystem. Even local hydrologists troubled by Nestlé's operations acknowledge that the accusations of damage are supported largely by anecdotal observations like those of Ms. Borden or of anglers who say the creek's stock of trout has diminished.

"We've heard their arguments, but we haven't seen any of their science," Mr. Switzer said. "Believe me, over and over we've asked, invited them to come in and talk with us. Let's not forget we have 17 years of data, rigorous science with over 100 monitoring points that demonstrate rigorously that what we are doing does not have a significant impact."

A water gauge in the creek behind Maryann Borden's home in Evart, Mich., May 17, 2017. Borden reckons that the creek is half the size it once was — a depletion she attributes to Nestle’s vast bottled water operations nearby. “What happened?” Borden asked. “Nestle happened. That’s what I think.”
Gary Howe | The New York Times
A water gauge in the creek behind Maryann Borden's home in Evart, Mich., May 17, 2017. Borden reckons that the creek is half the size it once was — a depletion she attributes to Nestle’s vast bottled water operations nearby. “What happened?” Borden asked. “Nestle happened. That’s what I think.”

Local opponents say those assertions are misleading. Mr. Ostahowski said he and other environmentalists had never been offered a chance to review Nestlé's raw data. They note that Nestlé's request initially failed when it was run through the state's Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, a formula aimed at determining whether pumping will harm the ecosystem.

Nestlé persuaded officials to look at the data differently, arguing that the tool was too conservative, and in the second rendering the state found that the increased pumping would not harm the local environment.

Melody Kindraka, a spokeswoman for the state environmental agency, said the department "is still in the process of reviewing and verifying all the information we have received." No timeline was given for its decision.

In these parts, though, longtime residents like Ms. Borden say common sense might be a better guide than science.

"The math doesn't add up," she said, staring at the creek she has lived beside since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. "I can't understand how they can take so much. How does it recover from that massive removal? It's millions of gallons. It doesn't go back into our aquifer, because they're putting it in a bottle and shipping it somewhere else."