Michigan utilities, industries and farmers use trillions of gallons of ground and surface water per year, essentially for free
While Swiss-based food giant Nestlé’s northern Michigan bottled water operations have raised public ire with its request to greatly expand the amount of groundwater it pumps, it’s far from alone in using Michigan waters to make its profits flow.
Utilities, industries and farmers use trillions of gallons of Michigan ground and surface water each year, essentially for free, a Free Press review of data from the state Department of Environmental Quality shows.
The state’s largest groundwater extractor — by far — is Pfizer’s pharmaceutical manufacturing operation near Kalamazoo, at more than 6.9 billion gallons in 2015, according to DEQ data. That annual groundwater withdrawal exceeds the total water volume of Orchard Lake in Oakland County, or Wayne County’s Belleville Lake.
Nestlé Waters North America and its Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Mecosta County ranks 23rd for its volume of state groundwater extracted each year, behind cement and mineral plants, paper companies, utilities, the Post Foods cereal company near Battle Creek, and others.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s use of 214.24 billion gallons of surface water per year places it behind the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant in Berrien County; DTE Energy’s Monroe and St. Clair power plants, and Consumers Energy’s plants in Ottawa and Bay counties.
That industries, utilities and farms use water at virtually no charge is not unique to Michigan, but part of long-standing U.S. water policy. Those who have access to a water supply — even large, for-profit corporations — are generally free to use it, so long as their use poses no harm to neighbors or the environment. The only price tag comes from relatively small government fees to help pay for regulation, and costs associated with the infrastructure needed to treat and move the water.
It’s become a sore point for many people that Nestlé, a subsidiary of Nestlé S.A., headquartered in Switzerland, may soon be given state permission to increase its groundwater pumping at an Osceola County well to up to as much as 210 million gallons per year, for the price of a $200 DEQ permit fee, as nearly 18,000 Detroit residents face potential water shutoffs for delinquent bills.
It’s the way things have always worked, but some are beginning to argue that needs to change. Fresh water, particularly in the 21st Century, is considered the world’s most valuable commodity by many, only growing in importance as global water supplies become more challenged. And yet it’s not priced that way when it comes to withdrawing it from the ground and waterways.
“The value of water and pricing, not to mention privatization and commodification of water, are turned upside-down,” said Jim Olson, an environment, water and public interest lawyer and founder of the Traverse City-based nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW.
“Companies who sell water gain high profits off the backs of a nonprofit, cost-based system. It’s ridiculous; a gross imbalance; water injustice.”
It’s enabled, in part, because Americans are spoiled when it comes to abundant, affordable water, said Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor and author of “Unquenchable — America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.”
“We wake up in the morning, we turn on the tap, and out comes as much fresh water as we want, for less than we pay for cell phone service or cable television,” he said.
But even in a water-abundant place like Michigan, the supply is finite.
“Think of the groundwater aquifer as a giant milkshake glass, and each well as another straw in the glass,” Glennon said. “What Michigan and other states permit is a limitless number of straws in the glass. That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s absolutely unsustainable.”
Water use isn’t as much of a concern when it’s returned in an unpolluted form back to the water system where it came. It’s so-called consumptive uses, where the water is gone from the watershed after it’s used, that are of most concern.
Pfizer, for all the groundwater it extracts, consumes only about 2% to 3% of the water it uses.
“Pfizer operates its largest manufacturing plant in the world in Kalamazoo County, producing active pharmaceutical ingredients and sterile injectable medicines,” company spokeswoman Kimberly Bencker said in an e-mailed statement. “These manufacturing processes require large amounts of water — between 12 million and 15 million gallons daily. Fortunately, nearly all of that water is returned, after treatment, to the environment, and we’re able to do so safely, rapidly and in compliance with environmental regulations.”
Power plants, many using hundreds of billions of gallons of Great Lakes water per year for cooling and other uses, generally return all but a small percentage of that water to its source, said Andrew LeBaron, an environmental quality analyst with the DEQ’s water resources division.
“For power plants, it varies quite a bit what that consumptive rate might be,” he said. “It ranges from a fraction of a percent up to 80%, depending on the power plant. Any of the groundwater-fed ones would be nearer the 80% (consumptive rate).”
Perhaps counterintuitively, agricultural irrigation is considered one of the larger consumptive uses of large-scale water withdrawals. That’s because a significant percentage of the water, once it flows to crops, is lost to the local water system through plant absorption, evaporation and runoff. The 1,452 farms reporting large-scale water withdrawals to the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development used 98 billion gallons of mostly groundwater in 2014.
Story continues below
The DEQ generally doesn’t judge the purpose for which a company wants a large amount of water. Instead, it works to assure that large withdrawals do not cause an “adverse resource impact”: Harm to fish, streams, wetlands, and other animals and their habitats.
Since 2006, Part 327 of the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act requires that large water withdrawals cause no significant reduction of nearby stream flows or fish populations. The state in 2009 began use of an online Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool to help prospective large-scale water withdrawers, those intending to pump more than 100,000 gallons of water per day.
“There’s a user interface; it asks you whether your withdrawal will be from surface or groundwater,” said James Milne, great lakes shorelands unit supervisor for the DEQ’s water resources division.
“If it’s groundwater, are you putting a well into bedrock or a glacial aquifer? It asks for the location of your withdrawal, the pumping rate and the schedule of when you will be pumping.”
The tool then serves as a conservative screen, utilizing groundwater and fish population models to assess the potential for an adverse resource impact to fish or stream flows from the proposed withdrawal.
“If you pass the screening tool, you’re able to register your withdrawal with the state, and you’re good to go,” Milne said. “If you don’t pass the screening tool, you have to request a site-specific review by DEQ.”
In those instances, DEQ staff looks more deeply at the proposal to see whether the model reached the wrong conclusion.
That’s what happened with Nestlé’s proposal to increase flows from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute at an Osceola Township groundwater well, as part of a proposed expansion of its Ice Mountain bottled water plant in Stanwood. The state’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool initially rejected the proposed increase; Nestlé officials requested a site-specific review, and, relying largely on the company’s own stream impact data, DEQ staff ultimately recommended approval of the increased pumping. The agency has yet to grant the permit.
The Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool sounds like a great resource, Glennon said. But “the devil is in the details,” he said.
“If the staff is simply trying to conform the model to what the actual, real-world-time pumping does, that would be consistent with good, scientific practice,” he said. “But if the model is good, and for some political reason, they want a different result, that’s terrible.”
Those pumping even more water, more than 2 million gallons per day, require a Part 327 permit from the state that not only looks at fish and stream-flow impacts but whether the withdrawal meets additional state and federal requirements related to economic and social development and environmental protection, Milne said. A dozen such permits have been issued so far, including for eight municipal water supplies, for St. Mary’s cement plant near Charlevoix and the Lafarge Presque Isle Quarry.
Michigan’s Part 327 is focused on additional, new withdrawals from a surface water or groundwater aquifer. Those pumping water prior to 2009 — no matter how much — are grandfathered in, their withdrawal considered part of the baseline.
“If there’s an adverse resource impact, obviously we can’t authorize any further withdrawals,” LeBaron said. “(But) anybody who had been approved previously, the presumption is you will not cause an adverse resource impact.
“Those baseline capacity withdrawals, the ones prior to this accounting system, are basically exempt from the prohibition of causing an adverse resource impact.”
That means that even if Michigan’s water situation dramatically worsens over the next century, those grandfathered-in, big withdrawers of water are locked in. “It’s not proscribed in the law as far as how to go back and revisit it,” LeBaron said.
State law allows for a stakeholder process in which those utilizing water from a particular water body or aquifer meet with a prospective new withdrawer, and attempt to “manage their water on the local level,” Milne said. To date, the process hasn’t been used.
Water isn’t priced in relationship to its value because basically, no one wants it that way — not residential consumers, not industries, not farmers, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, a nonprofit public policy organization.
“It’s an enormously controversial issue,” she said. “The United Nations treats the water that’s needed to sustain human life as a universal human right. But obviously, the provision of water requires very expensive public expenditures — and maintenance; it’s not just the building of the infrastructure initially. And you have very powerful lobbying from industries, from agriculture, from energy, to keep the cost of water low — even when it can be demonstrated they are using the water in atrociously wasteful, unsustainable and unreasonable ways.”
A better way, Felbab-Brown said, may be a tiered pricing program that allows families to have the 50 liters of water per person, per day that’s estimated to be needed for human survival at no charge, with additional water use — by them, by a business, or anyone — then priced on a rising scale based on water volumes used, and factoring in whether the use “serves public goals” or is purely profit-driven or “particularly wasteful.”
“You’d have to get past the initial and enormous problem of the public at large accepting that water is priced. And we are very, very far away from that,” she said.
“Persuading residents that they need to pay for what’s not an unlimited good — even though it’s falling from the sky — is very, very difficult. But in my view, it’s necessary.”
Circumstances in coming years — locally, nationally and globally — may be what causes the paradigm shift, Felbab-Brown said.
“What has, around the world, driven acceptance of water pricing is not enlightenment or benevolence, but dealing with acute water shortages,” she said.
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.
Michigan’s biggest water users
Total water use (per year, 2015)
Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant, Berrien County, 765.42 billion gallons (from Great Lakes)
DTE’s Monroe Power Plant, Monroe County, 559.05 billion gallons (from Great Lakes)
DTE’s St. Clair Power Plant, St. Clair County, 293.08 billlion gallons (from Great Lakes)
Total inland surface water use
Consumers Energy Karn-Weadock Complex, Bay County, 174.02 billion gallons
Consumers Energy BC Cobb Plant, Muskegon County, 83.87 billion gallons
Dearborn Industrial Generation, Wayne County, 66.2 billion gallons
Total groundwater use
Pfizer, Kalamazoo County, 6.934 billion gallons
St. Mary’s Cement, Charlevoix County, 4.261 billion gallons
Sylvania Minerals, Monroe County, 3.374 billion gallons
Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
- Permit denial won’t end Nestle water plant’s bid for more water
- Great Lakes water piped to Southwest ‘our future,’ says NASA scientist
- Scientists puzzled by mercury’s jump in Great Lakes fish